LOS ANGELES, June 14 (Xinhua) -- Despite a statewide death toll of over 5,000 from COVID-19 as of Saturday, California started this weekend to reopen most retail businesses that can prove they are willing and able to adopt state and county mandated safety protocols.
The move has some residents concerned that this could lead to an uptick in cases, while others are jubilant that steps are being taken to return to normalcy and save the local economy.
"It could lead to a second wave," Michael Tiberi from Sunland, a community 10 km north of downtown Los Angeles, told Xinhua. "It's not as if the virus has mutated to a benign form or that we have a vaccine in place yet."
California has had over 150,000 COVID-19 cases so far, with 5,061 deaths statewide. Almost half of those cases and over 2,800 deaths were reported in Los Angeles County, the lastest data showed.
Under rising pressure from business owners, Los Angeles County began on Friday to reopen larger-scale gathering places with more personal contact, such as restaurants, fitness facilities and gyms, zoos, art galleries, museums, day camps, recreational vehicle parks, outdoor recreation sites and swimming pools.
Also reopening from Friday in the county were film, television and music production; and pro-league stadiums, but without live audiences and recreational stays in hotels. Large public venues such as bars, houses of worship, concerts and in-person sporting events have not yet been permitted to reopen.
Los Angeles County Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn led the move to reopen, citing the compelling needs of local small businesses who are sliding toward bankruptcy and closure.
Hahn got the ball rolling by penning a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom, citing the "injustice" of allowing big stores like Walmart and Target to stay open during the pandemic, while local small businesses were going under.
"This is an important step we can take now to shore up our economy by keeping our small businesses alive," Hahn said of the reopening.
Also championing the cause of small businesses, Barger said at a press conference last week, "Every county around us has reopened. If we do not begin to listen to our constituents and listen to what is going on in this county, we are going to have more jobs lost, because many businesses are not going to be able to reopen."
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, "We have suffered and many are on the point of not coming back. We know how to shop safer... it's time to make sure we don't punish our local stores."
It has been over three months since Newsom put the state in lockdown on March 19, the first governor in the United States to do so.
But some residents expressed concern that the move to reopen has been premature when the state is still reporting single-day increases in coronavirus cases -- 3,644 on Friday and 2,963 on Saturday -- with 1,575 and 1,547 of those, respectively, originating in Los Angeles, the second largest city of the country.
"It's premature," Hollywood film producer Andre Morgan told Xinhua. "The flow of reliable health information in this country from when coronavirus first struck to now has been horrendous, in terms of lack of accuracy, constantly changing their position, no consistent leadership," he said, adding that America's national health system had proven woefully inadequate to deal with the crisis in an intelligent and effective way.
Officials, however, argued that caseloads alone are not the best metric to use when determining how effective their efforts have been in curbing COVID-19.
California Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly said Friday that overall case counts do not necessarily reflect how well the state is managing the outbreak and an increase in the amount of testing done can make it seem like the number of cases are increasing when that may not be the case.
"It's easy to just focus on the number of new cases," Ghaly said at a press conference. "But... if you're not seeing a tremendous uptick in the number of hospitalizations in the right timeline or... ICU cases, that's really connected at least in California's case to an increase in testing. So I think it's always important to kind of have that in the context."
To get a more accurate bead on how well -- or how badly -- California and Los Angeles are doing, local officials are tracking two more reliable metrics: the daily number of hospitalizations and "the positivity rate" -- meaning the percentage of positive cases compared to total swabs administered. The first one indicates how many people are becoming seriously ill, and the second could indicate an actual rise in transmission of the disease.
Ghaly said Friday that California's "positivity rate" was decreasing and patient hospitalizations were relatively stable.
Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County's health director, confirmed on Friday that the county's trends are on par with the state's, showing slight decreases in both hospitalizations and the positivity rate -- both positive indicators for local pandemic management.
"We're starting to begin the reopening -- bringing back the economy, bringing back that vital social and economic presence in our communities -- while we still stay vigilant and watchful over the movement of COVID-19 so we can stay in front of it as much as we can," Ghaly said.