After nearly two weeks of being in the purple, Santa Clara County has moved to the less restrictive red tier in California's color-coded classification system that determines how counties can move forward with reopening businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a lower rate of COVID-19 cases and positive tests that meets the threshold of the state's new reopening criteria, the county will now allow indoor operations of nail salons, gyms and museums; expanding capacity in shopping malls; and reopening K-12 schools if the county can maintain those lower numbers for the next two weeks, starting Tuesday, Sept. 8.
The businesses are required to follow guidelines set by the county's risk reduction order, which outlines directives pertaining to each industry set by the county and state, the release states.
Despite satisfying the state's conditions for reopening indoor operations of restaurants, places of worship and movie theaters, the county will continue prohibiting those sectors until case rates are lower. (California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said on multiple occasions that county health officers can override state guidelines as long as they don't reopen faster than the state.)
At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, County Counsel James Williams did not say why those businesses won't be allowed to resume indoor operations or provide a timeline for when they might be able to welcome customers back inside. Williams said the county wants to see a lower case rate, but he was not aware if the county aimed to meet a certain threshold.
In explaining the county's decision, Williams only said that it follows a few fundamental "principles" which the county's own health order, which provides industry-specific reopening guidelines, was built upon: "Outdoor is safer than indoors" and masks, as well as physical distancing, are key to reducing the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
Effective immediately, the following businesses can operate indoors, provided they submit and satisfy the county's "Social Distancing Protocol," which outlines all the safety modifications a business must make:
• Personal care services such as nail salons and massage parlors.
• Gyms and fitness centers at 10% capacity.
• Shopping malls at 50% capacity.
• Museums, zoos and aquariums at 25% capacity.
The looser restrictions, which were announced at the county news conference, follows the state's recently updated reopening framework — a color-coded, four-tiered system that determines which businesses and activities are allowed in counties, and at what capacity, based on their case and positivity rates.
When the state's new framework was first announced Aug. 28, the county was placed in the purple tier — the most restrictive level out of the four tiers for regions that report a testing positivity rate of more than 8% or a seven-day average of more than seven cases a day per 100,000 county residents. The county at that time reported a 3.5% positivity rate, but 8.6 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.
In this tier, most businesses and gatherings such as nail salons or places of worship are prohibited from indoor operations.
Under the red tier (the second-most restrictive level that signifies "substantial" spread), schools can resume in-person classes if their county stays at the level for 14 days, during which time they continue reporting a seven-day average daily case rate of four to seven cases and a positive testing rate of 5% to 8%.
If they choose to, counties in the red tier could allow restaurants, churches and movie theaters to operate indoors at 25% capacity or no more than 100 people — whichever is fewer — based on the state's guidelines.
On Tuesday, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Amador, Orange and Placer counties were moved into the red tier, according to Newsom during a noon press conference. Out of the five counties, Santa Clara County will be the only one following its own tighter restrictions.
Other counties have also followed their own reopening timelines. For example, San Francisco has yet to allow indoor operation of hair salons even though it's currently in the red tier.
With the formula, the county's average daily case rate of 8.4 is adjusted and lowered to 6.9, which meets the requirement of the red tier. A news release from the county Public Health Department also said that the state gives "counties credit toward their case rate if they test more people than the state average."
"We're testing 7,000 to 8,000 people a day," Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county's COVID-19 testing officer, said at the news conference. "And the state has given us credit now for all of that testing."
As of Tuesday, the county still reports a positivity rate of 3.5%, which satisfies a requirement in the orange tier, the second-lowest restrictive level, of the state's guidelines. But what changed since late August was how the state assessed a county's seven-day daily average of cases. Now, the case rate will be adjusted by multiplying that number with the county's daily testing rate per 100,000 residents, according to the state public health department's website.
To move into the second-lowest tier (orange), counties must remain in the red tier for 21 days and report a seven-day average of 1 to 3.9 daily COVID-19 cases as well as a positivity rate of 2% to 4.9%. At this level, counties can increase the capacity at which many businesses can operate indoors, allow bars to reopen outdoors and reopen indoor family entertainment centers such as bowling alleys. Counties are not allowed to jump tiers, regardless of their progress with mitigating the disease.
"If these metrics continue to improve, the county would be eligible to move forward in the framework to a less restrictive tier after three weeks," the county news release stated. "If these metrics worsen, the county would revert into a more restrictive tier as soon as two weeks from now."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.