What to Know About California’s ‘Dimmer Switch’ Reopening

What to Know About California’s ‘Dimmer Switch’ Reopening

Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Good morning.

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We all know California had the nation’s first stay-at-home orders, and officials have emphasized pre-emptive efforts to expand hospital capacity that have largely allowed communities in the state to sidestep the horrific effects of the coronavirus that have played out elsewhere.

And yet, here we are, hurtling toward a holiday weekend, with case counts that are threatening to surge out of control, increasing hospitalizations and an antsy population navigating a constantly changing patchwork of restrictions.

More than 7,000 new cases were announced across the state on Monday — the highest single-day total of the pandemic.

As I told my colleagues who write The Times’s coronavirus newsletter — which you can sign up for here — leaders have pointed to a range of factors that are contributing to the virus’s spread, but it’s difficult to pinpoint where we’re most at risk, especially while many businesses have been allowed to try to coax back customers.

And while many local leaders have been unequivocal about the need to wear masks in public, some have not. For the average Californian, it’s confusing.

[“Our luck may have run out.” Read more about California’s exploding case count.]

On Monday, a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state was ordering bars to close in seven of the state’s 58 counties, state officials explained in more detail how and why some counties may need to reverse course on reopening.

Here’s what to know now about California’s “dimmer switch” approach to reopening:

What do you mean by “dimmer switch?”

At this point, you’ve probably been thoroughly disabused of the notion that the reopening of California’s economy would be as simple as flipping back on a light switch. The “dimmer switch” idea is meant to convey that the reopening process won’t move in one direction.

Even before Mr. Newsom announced the state’s phased reopening plan at the end of April, one of the criteria he cited for moving forward was the capacity to quickly reinstate stay-at-home orders or other measures.

But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the implementation of those plans has resulted in counties essentially steering their own reopenings with state guidance and little enforcement. (Although that is shifting; Mr. Newsom has said some state pandemic aid will be tied to counties’ enforcement of health orders.)

One major challenge is tailoring responses to the huge variety of conditions driving infections across the state, including a horrific outbreak at San Quentin State Prison and family gatherings where people forget not to hug their cousins and grandparents.

What is the state tracking now?

The state has released a “watch list” of 19 counties — home to almost three-quarters of the state’s population — where the state is providing “technical assistance” because they’re showing signs of elevated disease transmission or their hospitalizations are increasing too quickly. (You can see how each county is faring according to the various metrics here.)

State public health officials may either order or encourage those counties to reinstate restrictions, as they did over the weekend when they ordered bars in seven counties to close.

One number that has become more important for gauging where the virus is spreading is the positivity rate.

Don’t positivity rates depend on how many tests are conducted?

Yes. In fact, more widely available testing is part of why the state’s rising positivity rate is such a cause for concern.

As of Monday, the state reported that on average, 84,000 tests were conducted per day in California over the past two weeks — well above the 60,000-per-day target public health officials laid out in April. On Sunday, the number of tests over the 24-hour period reached almost 106,000.

At the same time, the percentage of those tests that have come back positive has inched up to 5.5 percent on average over the past two weeks. It was as low as 4.1 percent on May 24.

In any case, officials have said they would like to see even more tests per day — particularly as residents of Los Angeles County, the epicenter of the virus’s spread in California, have been unable to get testing appointments.

So is California closing again?

Some of it is.

Most notably, in Los Angeles, officials said — sigh — that they would close beaches over the weekend and that fireworks displays would be banned, so that residents will have fewer places to gather.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.