California officials are pinning hopes to reduce the spread of coronavirus onto a curfew that took effect Saturday night as infections rise at an unprecedented rate — even though the overnight stay-at-home order will go largely unenforced.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced the curfew, which forbids nonessential activity after 10 p.m. in purple-tiered counties, on Thursday; however, a combination of lax enforcement, a lack of county uniformity and the limited nature of the curfew has experts questioning its effectiveness.
Dr. Lee Riley, an infectious disease professor at the University of California, Berkeley speaking with the Associated Press, was among those concerned it could be counterproductive.
“I’m not sure how effective this is going to be,” Riley said. “But the state feels that they have to do something. I think it’s going to be mostly a cosmetic effect and not so much a real impact on interrupting this transmission.”
In the Sacramento area, the curfew is shaping up to be mostly rhetorical. Sheriffs in Sacramento, El Dorado and Yolo counties have all indicated they will not be enforcing the curfew, along with several police agencies.
“The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office will not be determining — including entering any home or business — compliance with, or enforcing compliance of, any health or emergency orders related to curfews, staying at home, Thanksgiving or other social gatherings inside or outside the home, maximum occupancy or mask mandates,” Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said a prepared statement this week. “Further, we will not dispatch officers for these purposes — callers will be advised to call 311 and be routed to County Health.”
Officials from several rural areas of Northern California — which had largely been spared widespread infection during the summer but which now find themselves in the most restrictive purple tier as cases mount — have broadly criticized the curfew as an overreach of executive authority.
Placer County Board of Supervisors Chair Bonnie Gore referred to the curfew as a “civil liberties issue.”
Meanwhile, during a recent Placer County supervisors’ meeting, the county’s health director warned that the increase in infections is outpacing expectations.
“It’s becoming clear we’re now experiencing the predicted second wave. However, this wave is earlier in the season and escalating much faster than most were predicting,” Dr. Rob Oldham said.
Newsom has contended that the curfew — which effects 94% of California’s 40 million residents — is crucial to stopping the spread of the virus as thousands more are infected every day.
“Letting our guard down could put thousands of lives in danger and cripple our health care system,” Dr. Erica Pan, the state’s acting public health officer, said in a Thursday statement.
California recorded its highest daily increase of cases yet on Friday, adding 13,005 new infections to the current total of 1.07 million. The last record for daily infections was set over the summer, during another peak that will likely be overshadowed by the nascent winter surge.
The rate at which cases are being added by state health officials is already outpacing summer rates, and experts have been warning since the beginning of the pandemic of a potentially deadly winter.
Nearly 5,000 patients are in California hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19, a height not seen since August. ICU bed availability has plummeted in recent weeks, dropping from more than 3,000 in mid-October to just under 2,000 as of Friday.
Adventist Health/Rideout in Marysville, the only hospital serving Yuba and Sutter counties, is seeing a sudden influx of COVID-19 patients, jumping from three infected patients on Nov. 10 up to 20 as of Tuesday. The hospital has just 221 licensed beds to treat patients in, and the hospital’s president urged locals to take measures to prevent transmission.
In tandem with that leap in illness, test positivity rates have jumped up as well. At the start of November, 3.2% of COVID-19 tests were averaging positive results. Now, the average is 5.2%, based on the past two weeks’ worth of data. The World Health Organization has identified the 5% threshold as an important indicator of fitness for economic reopening, which California had managed to stay below for most of September and October.
On the day the curfew took effect in California, the United States surpassed 12 million cases, adding over 1 million of those in the past week. On Friday, nearly 200,000 cases were added across the nation, setting a new single-day record for infections, according to Johns Hopkins University. That’s more than the entire population of Elk Grove, infected with coronavirus in 24 hours.
Dr. Mark Cullen, an expert in infectious disease who recently retired from Stanford University told the Associated Press the curfew makes sense in theory.
“Large numbers of people getting together oblivious of controls — no masks, no social distancing, often indoors — a lot of those things are in fact occurring at night,” he said.
But one frequent criticism has been the vagueness in the language of the curfew itself.
“The order itself lacks direction regarding methods, specific statutes, and enforcement criteria, as to whether the governor intends to try to hold violators of this order accountable in criminal courts,” Fresno County’s district attorney told the AP.
All nonessential businesses are supposed to close their doors after 10 p.m., and restaurants should resort to takeout and delivery only after that time. How the order affects individuals, however, is less cut-and-dry.
Californians can still go to grocery stores, receive medical care or medicine, pick up food from a drive-thru or even, according to Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health officer, walk your dog past curfew.
Ghaly indicated that the curfew should be enforced by local agencies “to the extent that they believe it helps them control these activities that could add to the transmission.”
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, alighted upon these somewhat vague guidelines on Thursday.
“What about a gas station? What about a 24-hour convenience store?” Nielsen said. “What are the rules going to be for in our homes? What if you get a call from grandma, she’s got a need?”
With police departments and sheriff’s offices declining to enforce the order against individuals, that means options are limited for health officials looking for results. In the absence of enforcement, there is nothing stopping Californians from driving to a family member’s home for a large gathering after 10 p.m. — and it is these multi-household gatherings that have consistently been identified as the main cause behind widespread infection.
These large family gatherings are now an even greater source of concern ahead of the holiday season and with Thanksgiving quickly approaching.
“Plenty of people will congregate and nobody will get sick and they’ll go ‘nah, nah, fake news,'” said Dr. Mark Dworkin, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, told the Los Angeles Times. “But there will be other families that will be devastated and it will be very bad for them. If you want to play Russian roulette with COVID, that’s your right, but I think it’s foolish.”
Conditions are worsening across the state. San Francisco, which until recently was a COVID-19 success story, is expected to require more closures — such as indoor restaurant dining and gyms — as early as next week as cases spike.
“If our numbers continue to go up at this rate, we could conceivably have hundreds of people in the hospital by late December or early January according to our models,” Dr. Grant Colfax, the San Francisco director of public health, said Friday.
In some cases, the limp enforcement efforts come down to funding. Curt Hagman, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, told the Associated Press that law enforcement couldn’t enforce the curfew even if they wanted to.
“We’re not going to be sitting out arresting people if they’re out at 10:30 at night. We don’t have the resources,” he said.
Other law enforcement officials have expressed faith in Californians to abide by health guidelines on their own.
“We trust in the community and rely on people to assess risk and take precautions as appropriate,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the Los Angeles Times.
The Sacramento Police Department deferred to city code enforcement to address scofflaw businesses that stay open past 10 p.m., and will be continuing to educate individual offenders. Aside from municipal code enforcement, the main state agency that will deal with the consequences of the curfew order is the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Early on in the pandemic, the ABC threatened to revoke liquor licenses from bars and restaurants that resisted the new limitations on their services, which quickly reigned in infractions. A department spokeswoman told the Fresno Bee that agents will be visiting businesses to make sure they close accordingly with the curfew, but that it still prefers “education over enforcement.”
The cocktail of a relatively permissive order and toothless implementation has many skeptical.
“It’s completely undermined if you’re not going to enforce it,” Cullen told the Associated Press. “Limiting people’s nighttime activity specifically, without enforcement, doesn’t necessarily appear to be a productive strategy, and I don’t have much evidence outside of a relatively authoritarian enforcing situation in which we have reason to believe it worked.”
The limited stay-at-home order still permits people to leave their home in the late night hours as long as they don’t gather with people from another household. Leaving home to go for a late night walk with members of your household, walk the dog, pick up takeout food, or go grocery shopping is still permitted. The order goes into effect Saturday and lasts through Dec. 21, though it could be extended.
Officials stressed that the sacrifices made during the holidays could pay off later.
“The best gift we can give this season is the gift of good health so we can all be here for the vaccine,” Colfax said.
Capital region numbers
The six-county Sacramento region has combined for at least 712 COVID-19 deaths and close to 49,000 total confirmed cases during the ongoing health crisis. Nearly 370 of the infected are currently hospitalized.
Sacramento County has recorded 32,865 lab-positive coronavirus cases and 546 resident deaths from the virus. The county set a record high Thursday with 559 cases, then reported 454 more on Friday.
Hospitalizations continue to grow intensely, reaching 231 on Friday, four higher than Thursday. The previous three days saw net increases of 19, 17 and 19, state data show. The county’s high from the summer surge was 281.
The county now has 50 patients in ICUs, down four from Thursday.
The city of Sacramento surpassed 300 coronavirus deaths on Thursday, and that increased to 304 with Friday’s update.
County health officials have now confirmed 26 deaths for the first two weeks of November. The county’s October death toll has grown by two, from 54 to 56, after additional cause of death determinations were completed.
Yolo County has reported 4,139 total lab-confirmed cases during the pandemic, adding 89 on Saturday, 69 on Friday and 53 on Thursday. The county reported three new deaths since Thursday, for a total of 75.
Yolo has 13 patients in hospitals with COVID-19, up one from Thursday and with seven still in ICUs, according to state data updated Friday.
Placer County has reported 5,687 cases during the pandemic, adding 54 on Wednesday, 99 on Thursday and 45 on Friday.
The county has reported four deaths this week: one Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The countywide death toll is now 67.
Placer’s massive spike in hospitalized cases continues to break records on a daily basis. The county says it has 91 patients in hospital beds with confirmed coronavirus as of Friday, a number that has tripled since Halloween, with 83 (91%) in hospitals specifically “because of COVID.” Both totals well exceed the peaks from the summer surge, in which Placer never had more than 70 hospitalized virus patients at any one time.
The county says 10 are now in ICUs, nine of whom are being treated specifically for the disease.
State data updated Friday, which has varied slightly from the county’s self-reported numbers, showed Placer at 86 hospitalized and 12 in ICUs.
El Dorado County is one of a few California counties with a single-digit death toll, with just four fatalities since the start of the pandemic. But new cases are coming at an accelerated pace and hospitalizations are rising fast as well.
The county added 52 cases on Thursday and 31 on Friday for a cumulative total of 1,930. Though a large share of recent cases have come from the Lake Tahoe region, the biggest plurality from Thursday’s total came from El Dorado Hills at 15, the county said in an update.
El Dorado has eight hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Friday with half of them in ICUs, the same totals as Thursday.
Sutter County health officials have reported a total of 2,601 people positive for coronavirus and 13 deaths. The county added 81 new cases Thursday, breaking a daily record of 80 set Monday.
The past seven days have marked Sutter County’s seven highest daily infection totals of the pandemic, the local health dashboard shows.
Yuba County officials have reported a total of 1,706 COVID-19 infections and 10 deaths. The county reported 41 new infections Thursday, the second-most in any day of the pandemic.
Sutter and Yuba, sister counties that share a public health office and have a combined total of one hospital, have seen the COVID-19 patient total at that hospital shoot up very quickly. Adventist Health/Rideout in Marysville was treating 24 virus patients as of Wednesday, up from 10 as of Nov. 13.
Rideout’s president, Rick Rawson, in a video message earlier this week pleaded for local residents to follow health orders and avoid gatherings to keep his hospital from becoming overwhelmed.
The Los Angeles Times, The Fresno Bee, the Associated Press and The Bee’s Michael McGough contributed to this report.
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