COVID-19: People return to the streets as Contra Costa County, state, reopen
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Thousands of Californians took advantage of a move into red-tier life Sunday, after COVID-19 restrictions that kept them confined for months loosened, with Contra Costa County joining the state’s most populated areas in the biggest mass reopening since autumn.
People eagerly swarmed streets in such downtown areas as Danville and Walnut Creek to dine inside and stroll along jammed sidewalks as if emerging from winter hibernation.
And they came with the hope that — with things headed slowly but steadily in the right direction — the easing of restrictions will last this time.
As Patty McCurdy, general manager of The Peasant & The Pear restaurant in downtown Danville, put it: “It feels different.”
The combination of increasing coronavirus vaccines and decreasing transmission rates led public health officials to move 13 counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Benito and Sonoma, from the strict purple tier to the more permissive red tier in the state’s four-level reopening system. The 13 counties that went into the red tier Sunday have 17.7 million residents or almost 45% of the state’s population.
Most counties took advantage of change this weekend. Los Angeles County is making the change on Monday.
The reaction among Southern California patrons was equally enthusiastic, such as at the Copehouse Bar & Bistro in the San Bernardino County city of Redlands, where customers waited a half-hour to get a table outside or inside. Among them were Garret Fuson of Moreno Valley and Meagan Griffin of Redlands, who brought a bouquet of flowers to give to their server.
“We came out to support small business,” said Fuson.
The weekend’s developments added up to the latest sign of the Golden State’s return to the rhythms of life people enjoyed before the global health crisis led to shelter-in-place lockdowns, skyrocketing unemployment and 534,000 COVOID-19 related deaths in the United States.
“Finally, we’re back,” McCurdy said after Danville California-Mediterranean style restaurant she runs offered indoor seating for the first time since the start of the pandemic. For much of the day, all the interior tables were taken.
People filled the popular Danville strip along Railroad Avenue despite an overcast spring day. A similarly bustling scene unfolded in Walnut Creek, where patrons — just like old times — had to scramble to find street parking.
Amy and Ron Kyhl of San Ramon marked the reopening Sunday by visiting four Danville restaurants.
“It’s just not the same to do take out,” Amy Kyhl said. “You go to a restaurant for the experience and the atmosphere. It’s been really challenging not having that.”
In the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, counties in the red tier may allow more businesses and organizations to reopen, and restrictions on businesses already open may be eased. Retail stores can double capacity to 50% while restaurants, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums can reopen for indoor activities at 25% capacity. Indoor gyms and dance and yoga studios can be at 10% capacity. Students also will be allowed to attend in-person classes for grades 7 through 12, if their schools opt to reopen.
By Wednesday, 13 more counties, including Monterey, are expected to fall into the red tier if coronavirus case rates continue their current downward trend, according to the California Department of Public Health.
This weekend’s move came after California reached a goal Friday of administering 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in high-risk, economically disadvantaged communities.
For the first time since before Halloween, California recorded an average of fewer than 4,000 cases per day over last week, less than a tenth of its January peak and nearly 30% fewer than two weeks ago, according to data compiled by the Bay Area News Group.
Contra Costa officials said in a news release they had a daily average of almost 50 new virus cases per 100,000 population in early January. The case rate dropped to 6.7 per day on Friday, they said.
Contra Costa officials said they are more equipped to handle the reopening than in the fall because of the three coronavirus vaccines. President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that he wants all U.S. adults to be eligible for the vaccine by May 1.
Many people hope for additional activities to restart if the numbers keep decreasing. As of now, Contra Costa residents are prohibited from attending sports events and concerts or visit saunas and steam rooms, theme and amusement parks, night clubs, convention centers and indoor playgrounds.
Not all businesses planned immediate changes in reaction to the move into the red tier.
Judi Amos, a Lafayette salon owner, said Hair by Dallas and Company will follow protocols it has used since reopening Jan. 27 under the purple tier.
“It works so well we don’t want to change anything,” she said.
The Oakwood Athletic Club in Lafayette also plans to adapt slowly to the new guidelines, said Celine Dastous, although she expects more members to be comfortable with working out inside as the coronavirus case numbers decrease and more people get vaccinated.
Kelly Cooper, principal of Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, said Sunday moving into the red tier “is the step we were waiting for. This is what we’ve been preparing for since October. Spaces are ready, everything is ready.”
Cooper said she hopes to have limited in-person classes start March 22. Cooper said families have wavered between sending their kids to campus or not as California closed, reopened and closed again.
In Southern California, the heart of the American movie industry, theater marquees are alighting anew and grateful fans were happy to see a film on a big screen, for a change.
Huntington Beach resident Jeff Alexander bought snacks and a drink before heading into an afternoon showing of sci-fi thriller “Chaos Walking,” which has been receiving mixed reviews (a 21 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). “I’m happy to be back,” he said. “I didn’t even care what I saw, just picked the first showing and I went.”
Across the state, residents were enjoying a return to something approaching normal.
Ron Kyhl, who with his wife Amy visited four Danville restaurants on Sunday, said California “locked down too hard for too long” leading him to sign a petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. Now he’s ready for the reopening to last.
“It feels like hope,” Kyhl said.
Staff writer Martha Ross and the Southern California News Group contributed to this report.