LA, other large counties forecast looser COVID-19 rules

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Three of the five largest counties in California could reopen as early as this weekend for indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms at limited capacity under a new metric aimed at getting more shots to those most vulnerable.

For Los Angeles County, this would be its first time out of the state’s most restrictive closure orders since Gov. Gavin Newsom adopted a color-coded system in August. The other counties likely to see more reopenings are Orange and San Bernardino, also in Southern California.

A new equity initiative announced by Newsom last week allows counties to move out of the most restrictive shutdowns once 2 million shots are administered to people living in ZIP codes that the state deems to be most vulnerable based on household income, access to health care and education levels.

Once that threshold is met, state officials will reassess and restrictions could be loosened within two days, said Ali Bay, deputy director of communications for the California public health department.

Newsom, a Democrat likely to face a recall election later this year, has implemented several new vaccine initiatives tied to reopening schools and the broader economy in recent weeks. All that change has not been easy.

In Santa Clara, County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith said late Monday that his county won’t participate in a state vaccine delivery program administered by insurer Blue Shield because it would not improve speed or efficiency. The governor tapped the insurance company to create uniform rules and increase the rate of vaccinations, especially in hard-hit communities, through a centralized online portal.

Smith, the county executive, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the contract would not bring in more doses, while adding “another layer of administration” that could delay getting residents being inoculated.

“It eliminates local control,” Smith told the supervisors. “It would put statewide priorities over local needs.”

The state’s switch to the new vaccine appointment and delivery system was expected to be completed by March 31. So far, only Kern County has signed a contract with Blue Shield. Orange County’s Board of Supervisors won’t even consider signing the contract for another two weeks. San Bernardino said it’s still examining contract details.

Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million residents, said Tuesday it has not signed the contract but will work with Blue Shield and the state “to design a partnership that strengthens the existing vast and diverse network of vaccination providers.”

The California Department of Public Health did not respond to questions about what would happen if Santa Clara or other counties do not join the system. In a statement, the department said dozens of providers at more than 1,000 vaccination sites have signed on.

Among them are about 40 federally qualified health centers, 28 hospitals, four large medical groups, three pharmacies and three tribal clinics, according to Blue Shield.

“Our goal is to save lives by helping to provide all Californians equitable access to the vaccines, especially in those communities hardest hit by the pandemic,” Blue Shield spokesperson Matthew Yi said in a statement.

Separately, some elected officials are pushing Newsom to reconsider his plan to send more doses to vulnerable neighborhoods, saying that the ZIP codes he wants to use do not capture all the pockets of poverty in the state. San Francisco Bay Area officials are particularly irked.

Angst over how to deliver vaccine comes as more counties reopen for business as coronavirus infection rates fall, nearly a year after California went into lockdown.

Six counties advanced to the red tier Tuesday, including the San Francisco Bay Area counties of Alameda, Solano and Santa Cruz. Disneyland Resort is likely to reopen in late April, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek announced Tuesday, days after Newsom lifted restrictions on outdoor sports and entertainment venues.

County health officials continue to plead with residents to practice social distancing and wear face masks, even as more people are being vaccinated.

LA County’s public health director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, called the progress uplifting.

“This means that, as we continue to vaccinate more residents, we are slowing transmission, saving lives, and closer to ending this pandemic,” she said.


Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Orange County, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this story.