Orange County Inches Toward Moderate Reopening Tier

March 17, 2021 Updated: March 17, 2021

Orange County was one-tenth of a percentage away from advancing to a less-restrictive set of reopening rules March 16.

Although it missed the mark for the state’s most recent weekly review of COVID-19 data, it could reach the orange tier by April 7 if metrics continue a downward trend.

Reaching the orange tier would allow bars to open outdoors with modifications, so long as meals are not served alongside alcoholic beverages. Bowling alleys and indoor playgrounds will be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity for naturally distanced activities.

Orange County moved from the purple tier to the less restrictive red tier March 14, allowing for movie theaters, gyms, and restaurants to reopen at limited capacity. Retail stores can now operate at half capacity, while museums, zoos, and aquariums can function at 25 percent capacity.

To reach the orange tier, the county must meet state requirements along three guidelines. The state, which provides weekly updates on Tuesdays, indicated that Orange County met two of the three guidelines March 16.

The county’s test positivity rate improved from 3.2 percent to 2.2 percent from last week. The county met the minimum requirement of 4.9 percent to reach the next tier.

The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, improved from 4.1 percent to 3.5 percent. The county met the minimum requirement of 5.3 percent to reach the next tier.

The case rate per 100,000 improved from six to four on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag—only one-tenth of a percentage point away from the 3.9 per 100,000 cases needed to graduate to the orange tier.

The county must be in the red tier for at least three weeks before going into the orange zone, and needs to achieve two weeks of orange tier COVID-19 numbers prior to moving into the moderate tier.

If its downward COVID-19 trend continues, the county could move into the orange tier by April 7, just a few days after Easter.

While the red tier allows theme parks to open at 15 percent capacity, the orange tier allows them to operate at 25 percent capacity.

Wineries, breweries, and distilleries can open indoors with max 25 percent capacity or 100 people.

In the orange tier, churches and places of worship can open indoors at half capacity, as opposed to 25 percent in the red tier.

Offices can reopen indoors with modifications.

Outdoor live events can open from 20 percent to 33 percent, or 67 percent if all guests are tested or show full proof of vaccination.

Shopping centers can fully reopen indoors with modifications in the orange tier. Cardrooms and satellite wagering can open indoors at a 25 percent max capacity.

The county reported 164 positive cases of COVID-19 on March 17, and 25 fatalities.

Hospitalizations decreased from 216 on March 16 to 199 on March 17, with intensive care unit (ICU) patients declining from 62 to 54.

“Our hospitalization and ICU numbers are down today, so that’s good,” Orange County chief executive Frank Kim said.

As well, people with certain chronic health conditions from 16 to 64 years old are now eligible to get vaccinated.

So far, the county has at least partially vaccinated more than one million people, or around one-third of the county’s total population.

County officials said they were concerned about a potential outbreak and surge in cases as people mingle due to relaxed restrictions—especially when spring break is right around the corner.

“We had a meeting the other day where we were concerned about making sure we weren’t going to have a second surge with people maybe feeling a little bit too free from the lifting of restrictions,” Kim said.

However, Andrew Noymer, a University of California–Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said vaccinations could help mitigate the impact of a surge in cases.

“I’m not crazy about the timing of spring break, but … it’s not automatic it will be a calamity,” Noymer said.

“I know a lot of people will ignore this advice [to avoid traveling], and given the declines we continue to see, I’m optimistic that we’ll somehow skate through. … But it’s a little hard to predict. If we get another wave in the U.S. the same way as Germany and Italy, then spring break may yet be indicted as an accessory after the fact.

“The biggest fear is grandma as opposed to the kid who goes to Daytona Beach. The difference this year is we’ve vaccinated 100 million Americans, including many grandmas, so I’m not quite as severe with my finger-wagging as I was a year ago, but I still think the prudent step is to just skip it.”

City News Service contributed to this report.