LOS ANGELES — California, the first state to impose far-reaching lockdowns because of the coronavirus, announced Thursday its strictest new measures since the earliest days of the pandemic in an effort to keep a surge in cases from overwhelming hospitals.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said the new round of regional stay-at-home orders would take effect as intensive care beds filled up. Millions of people across Southern and Central California are likely to see outdoor dining shuttered, playgrounds roped off and hair salons closed within days if the available intensive care capacity in their areas dips below a 15% threshold.
The new restrictions will last for at least three weeks, strictly limit store capacity and allow restaurants to serve only takeout or delivery. The governor also said people should temporarily call off all nonessential travel.
“If we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed,” Newsom said. “If we don’t act now, we’ll continue to see our death rate climb.”
The state’s new orders feel eerily like the spring, when spiraling deaths compelled leaders in California, New York and elsewhere to start telling people to stay home. Only now things are even worse. More than 2,600 Americans died of the coronavirus Thursday, and another 100,000 were in hospitals. Case counts continue to skyrocket.
In anticipation of a deadly holiday season, Gov. John Carney of Delaware on Thursday issued a stay-at-home advisory asking people not to gather indoors with anyone outside their household. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently ordered a three-week shutdown that closed casinos and movie theaters and suspended in-person high school and college classes. Oregon, Washington state, Minnesota and cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have also reimposed restrictions.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden said that on his first day as president, he would ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days. “Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days. And I think we’ll see a significant reduction,” he said. He also said he had asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to play a central role in his administration to help combat the virus.
But for now, the states are leading on enforcement, and many of their measures come with pages of exceptions and fine print as well as uncertainties about how aggressively they will be enforced. Many people are weary after nine months of shifting rules about whether they can go to school, eat indoors or outdoors, take their children to the playground or step inside a big-box store.
As he did repeatedly earlier this year, Newsom emphasized that California would withhold funding from counties that refused to enforce the new stay-at-home order. “We didn’t want to be punitive, but we wanted to be firm,” he said. That approach, however, has drawn criticism in the past, as it resulted in piecemeal compliance with restrictions.
By many measures, the situation across California is even bleaker than in March, when Newsom and other state leaders appeared, unmasked, inside the state’s emergency operations center in Sacramento to order residents to stay home. California has now recorded 1.2 million virus cases and 19,468 deaths, and Thursday, Newsom delivered a grim tally via remote video.
California is seeing its sharpest increase in cases since the pandemic took hold, even as its coronavirus prevention measures have become more stringent; some early measures, such as mask-wearing, were voluntary.
If hospitalization rates keep soaring, California’s 40 million residents could all be under new stay-at-home orders by Christmas.
State leaders have called their new orders “dial-backs” or “freezes” and set time limits on the new restrictions in the hopes of flattening yet another steep curve until a vaccine is widely available.
But there have been new waves of pushback.
Restaurants and some cities within Los Angeles County revolted against new prohibitions on outdoor dining, saying the rules would choke off business and were not grounded in scientific data. Pasadena decided to continue to allow limited outdoor dining, and the Beverly Hills City Council unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the county repeal the restrictions.
In Michigan, a Republican lawmaker called for the impeachment of Whitmer, a Democrat, after she announced the latest round of restrictions there. Four Republican legislators in Ohio filed articles of impeachment this week against their Republican governor, Mike DeWine, over limits he put into place.
Harmeet Dhillon, a civil rights lawyer and a member of the Republican National Committee, said many Californians were no longer inclined to listen to state directives because with each wave of the virus, the government has prematurely warned that hospitals would be overwhelmed.
“What I’m concerned about is a boy-who-cried-wolf situation,” Dhillon said. “People are going to say, ‘He said the hospitals would fill up in March, and they didn’t.’”
Californians, she said, have also become cynical about directives when numerous leaders have been spotted at restaurants even as they implore residents not to go.
The question of whether governments should actually enforce social distancing rules and mask orders poses a vexing, divisive challenge across the country. Some police departments have declined to enforce mask mandates or social distancing rules, and mayors and governors have tried to use the rules as a stick to get businesses and residents to cooperate.
Faced with a cluster of cases in a suburb of New York City in early March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo established a “containment area” and moved in the National Guard. The approach, shocking at the time, jolted many into paying attention to the virus, which had at that point appeared in very few places.
But the strategy primarily focused on closing large gathering spaces, such as schools and houses of worship, and the Guard was not there to enforce boundaries but rather to distribute food to quarantined residents. The virus continued to spread elsewhere in the state.
In Colorado, a battle over enforcing the rules has erupted between Democratic leaders and Weld County, a staunchly conservative area on the state’s northern border.
Surging cases recently tipped Weld County into the red zone on Colorado’s coronavirus alert system, triggering new restrictions on indoor dining and other businesses. As state lawmakers threatened to cut off relief money, Weld County commissioners have remained defiant, saying they would rely on people’s “individual responsibility” and not impose any restrictions.
Brandon Bird said his pizza place in the county, the Bulldog Pub and Grub, got caught in the middle. He said he continued to allow indoor dining under the county guidelines until state investigators suspended his liquor license the day before Thanksgiving. Bird has since shifted to takeout only and said he was frustrated by the whipsawing rules.
“Where’s the consistency?” he said. “Tell me what to do correctly and don’t have a bunch of conflicting information.”
As California’s reopening led to a summer surge of the virus, some counties openly resisted putting into place prevention measures, prompting the governor to establish an enforcement task force just before the Fourth of July.
Through November, the task force levied more than $2 million in fines to businesses and carried out 4,366 enforcement actions, including 179 citations and three revocations of business licenses. The other actions were mainly warnings.
In addition, counties have sued churches and schools for violating coronavirus orders. Fresno County obtained a preliminary injunction against a Christian school, Immanuel, for returning to in-person classes in August in violation of state orders. Both Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties obtained court orders against churches for defying health orders.
The state restrictions limiting attendance at religious services had been upheld by a federal judge, but Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated his ruling and asked him to reconsider in light of its recent decision to end restrictions on houses of worship in New York.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, the rhythms of daily life revealed how America’s lockdowns often look punitive on paper but are looser in practice.
In the middle of a two-week shutdown ordered by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Las Cruces was not so much on pause as it was on mute. The highways were jammed. Restaurants were banned from serving meals on-site, but a line of cars idled through the drive-thru of a Whataburger.
“It’s a challenge,” Mayor Ken Miyagishima said. “If you look at the history of America, they left England because they didn’t really want to be told what to do. I think that’s in the fiber of Americans.”
Even government officials are under fire for failing to self-enforce their own rules.
Newsom and the mayor of San Francisco faced widespread criticism after they were spotted at the upscale French Laundry restaurant for separate events. The mayor of Denver had to apologize for flying to Mississippi to spend Thanksgiving with family.
In Texas, the top elected official in Williamson County, Judge Bill Gravell Jr., had issued a series of orders that put the county under a “Stay Home Stay Safe” lockdown throughout April. Community gatherings of 10 people or more were prohibited.
But Gravell was spotted during the shutdown at his grandson’s birthday party, dressed as a firefighter. He was charged with violating the local emergency management plan, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor last month and was convicted and sentenced, according to court documents. His punishment was a $1,000 fine.