Newsom: Changes to coronavirus orders may come within weeks

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California may be only a few weeks away from making “meaningful changes” to its stay-at-home order, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, but he warned progress will be jeopardized if people do things like crowd beaches, which occurred over the warm spring weekend.

“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off, this virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful sunny day around our coasts,” he said in his daily press briefing on the coronavirus.

Newsom’s observation the state is “a few weeks away, not months away” from changes is the most optimistic timeline he has given on easing the stay-at-home order that took effect March 19, though he did not specify what “meaningful” meant or give a firm date. But just three weeks ago, Newsom and top health officials were projecting a need for at least 50,000 additional hospital beds for a mid-May surge in cases.

Monday’s remarks come as local governments begin to chart their own courses on reopening, with vastly different plans based on their geography and populations. Officials from six rural Northern California counties and 14 small cities in them have urged the governor to let them reopen their economies, noting that just 69 of the 500,000 people who live there have had confirmed cases of coronavirus. At the same time, six San Francisco Bay Area counties said they are extending stay-at-home orders through the end of May.

“This global pandemic of COVID-19 is still in its early stages,” the Bay Area counties said in a Monday statement. “The virus spreads easily, testing capacity is limited and expanding slowly, and vaccine development is just beginning. We expect to be responding to COVID-19 in our communities for a long time.”

The rural counties of Sutter, Yuba, Butte, Colusa, Tehama and Glenn, meanwhile, said they’ve added a combined 475 hospital beds in preparation for a feared surge, but they have just one coronavirus patient in an intensive care unit, according to a letter dated Friday that county and city leaders sent to Newsom.

“At this point, given the COVID-19 numbers locally — and our enhanced health care capacity — we ask you to allow our counties to exercise local authority to implement a careful and phased reopening of our local economies,” said the letter also signed by the region’s two Republican state lawmakers, Assemblyman James Gallagher and Sen. Jim Nielsen.

Newsom has so far allowed scheduled surgeries to resume. And he said he’ll outline a strategy on Tuesday for phasing in the reopening of businesses, with different needs based on the type of business and where it’s located. He said he’s turned to other governors in the Western states pact on reopening for guidance and best practices. Colorado and Nevada on Monday joined the pact that also includes Washington and Oregon.

Even as he considers reopening, Newsom warned Californians they must continue to practice physical distancing to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Over the weekend, a spring heat wave lured tens of thousands of people to Southern California beaches, where residents compared the crowds as similar to those during the July 4 holiday.

Newsom said he does not want to step up enforcement against people who don’t follow the rules. But he urged local governments to reconsider their directives.

Already on Sunday, Newport Beach officials called for a special meeting to consider shutting beaches for everyone over the next few weeks or closing roads leading to the shore.

Beachgoers over the weekend cruised seaside neighborhoods searching for parking and packed sidewalks, inches from people’s front yards, said Diane Dixon, a councilwoman whose district run along the beach.

“This is not an issue in normal times. But in a pandemic it creates at lot of concerns, and our older residents are especially at risk,” Dixon said.

Neighboring Huntington Beach also had big gatherings, despite closed beach parking lots and metered parking along the Pacific Coast Highway. Some beaches had more restrictions than others depending on the governmental agencies in charge of different segments of the coastline.

San Diego city’s beaches opened Monday and drew surfers back to the water and joggers along the sand, with no sitting or stopping allowed. Los Angeles, city and county beaches, trails and playgrounds were closed. Officers on horseback patrolled those areas to enforce social distancing rules.

California has had more than 43,700 coronavirus cases and 1,720 deaths, more than half of them in the Los Angeles area, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. However, the number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.

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Associated Press reporters Julie Watson in San Diego and Daisy Nguyen in Oakland, Calif., contributed.

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