Changing state regulations, lower transmission rates and a strong push towards vaccinations helped Ventura County become the first county in the tri-county region to reach the orange tier of California’s COVID-19 reopening system.
The state announced new regulations on April 6 as it hit its second statewide vaccine equity metric goal, which was designed to make sure that communities that have been most impacted by the pandemic are receiving equal access to the vaccine. Upon hitting the goal, which was to distribute 4 million doses to people living in those communities, the state relaxed its guidelines, making it easier for counties to move into less restrictive tiers of reopening.
Counties in the orange tier have “moderate” COVID spread and can have more indoor dining, office work and other business activities.
“I’m thrilled that businesses are moving toward greater and greater opening,” Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County’s public health officer, said in a press conference on April 6, the day before Ventura County officially entered the orange tier. “Our businesses have been long-suffering and deserve the lifeblood of greater numbers of customers and more indoor allowances.”
Previously, counties were in the red, or “substantial,” tier if they had between 4 and 10 cases per 100,000 residents per day, and in the orange if they were between 1 and 3.9 cases per 100,000 residents per day. Now, counties are in the red tier if they have between 6 and 10 cases per 100,000 residents per day, in the orange tier if they have between 2 and 5.9 cases per 100,000 residents and in the yellow if they have fewer than 2 cases per 100,000 residents.
Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties both missed the orange cutoff with the new regulations, but not by much. SLO County averaged 6.3 cases per 100,000 residents, while Santa Barbara had 6.8 cases per 100,000 residents. Ventura County, on the other hand, met the standard even before it was changed, with 3.9 cases per 100,000 residents.
In his April 6 press conference, Levin said Ventura County’s testing positivity rate hit 2% for the three days of the weekend. The county also went three days without recording any COVID-19 deaths — which isn’t a state requirement, but was still heralded as a sign that the county’s efforts to contain the virus have been working.
“The yellow tier may not be that far away,” Levin said.
For Ventura County, that means offices are allowed to welcome workers back to the indoor office work, but telework is still encouraged. Outdoor live events can have a maximum of 33% their regular capacity, and the event’s capacity goes up to 67% if all guests are tested for the virus or if they can show proof of full vaccination.
Card rooms are allowed to reopen again under the orange tier, with a maximum 25% capacity, and outdoor gatherings have a limit of 50 people. Wineries, breweries and distilleries lose the 90-minute time limit for guests that they had under the purple and red tiers, and they no longer have to require reservations or have limited hours.
Bars are also able to open outdoors with modifications for the first time under the orange tier, and family entertainment centers can have 25% of their indoor capacity, going up to half capacity if guests are tested or can show proof of full vaccination.
Levin cautioned against losing sight of the fact that COVID-19 is still present in the community, and reminded people that the virus and its variants can still negatively impact the region and force the case numbers to rise again.
“Please continue to wear a mask, continue to social distance,” Levin said. “We must not let our guard down.”
The color-coded system appears on its way out in the coming months. On April 6, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that if the state continues on its path of reducing transmission and vaccinating heavily, almost all COVID-related restrictions in every county would be dropped on June 15.
“It is incumbent upon all of us not to announce ‘mission accomplished,’ not to put down our guard, but to continue that vigilance that got us where we are today, the lowest case rates and positivity rates in America,” Newsom said. “We are seeing bright light at the end of the tunnel.”