Many Californians Brace for New Lockdown as Virus Cases Soar

The new rules that take effect before midnight in the vast region of Southern California, much of the San Francisco Bay Area and a large swath of the Central Valley also prohibit residents from gathering with people not in their households

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Many Californians were preparing Sunday for a new stay-at-home order that bars restaurant dining, shutters salons and limits retail in an effort to curb spiraling coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

The new rules that take effect before midnight in the vast region of Southern California, much of the San Francisco Bay Area and a large swath of the Central Valley also prohibit residents from gathering with people not in their households. The state on Sunday reported a record number of new daily virus cases for the third consecutive day, with infections topping 30,000.

Some law enforcement officials said they don't plan to enforce the rules and are counting on residents to voluntarily wear masks and practice physical distancing to protect themselves during the pandemic. In Orange County, Sheriff Don Barnes said deputies would be dispatched to calls related to potential criminal acts and to protect life and property — not to solely enforce mask-wearing or these latest stay-at-home orders.

“Compliance with health orders is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement,” Barnes said in a statement over the weekend. “Orange County Sheriff’s deputies will not be dispatched to, or respond to, calls for service to enforce compliance with face coverings, social gatherings, or stay-at-home orders only."

With coronavirus cases rising, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a plan to divide the state into five regions and use intensive care unit capacity as a trigger for widespread closures.

It is the most restrictive order since Newsom imposed the country’s first statewide stay-at-home rule in March and comes as California grapples with soaring COVID-19 infections that have driven hospitalizations above 9,700 and the seven-day positivity rate above 10%.

The rules are expected to affect about eight in 10 California residents and will remain in place at least three weeks, meaning the lockdown will cover the Christmas holiday.

California's Department of Public Health imposed the order Saturday after intensive care unit capacity in Southern California and Central Valley hospitals fell below a 15% threshold. Five San Francisco Bay Area counties opted to do the same even before the state mandate kicks in for their region, and the measures there will last at least through Jan. 4, a week longer than the state’s timeline.

State health officials on Sunday said the capacity in intensive care units had shrunk to about 7% in the San Joaquin Valley and 10% in Southern California. Other parts of the state could soon face the same restrictions, with the region around Sacramento reporting an ICU capacity of 18%.

In Fresno County, an agricultural-rich region of about 1 million people, there were only six licensed intensive care unit beds available on Sunday, the Fresno Bee reported.

In neighboring San Benito County, Public Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci on Saturday said the county's only hospital was completely full.

“This is an alarming situation that could get much worse,” he said in a statement.

In Los Angeles County, public health officials on Sunday reported a new daily record of more than 10,000 new confirmed virus cases. Officials urged people to stay home as much as possible, adding that “even if you don’t feel sick, being around people outside your household is extremely risky.”

The explosive rise in infections began in October and is being blamed largely on people ignoring safety measures and socializing with others.

Under the measures, schools that are currently open can continue to provide in-person instruction. Retailers including supermarkets and shopping centers can operate with just 20% capacity while restaurant dining and hair and nail salons must close.

Over the weekend, some Bay Area stores reported a rush of shoppers seeking to stock up before crowds were limited. In Sacramento, a salon was booked with customers eager to get haircuts ahead of a possible order to close, though some others had called to cancel due to fear of the virus.

The order deals a blow to small businesses that have struggled to survive over nearly a year in which they were repeatedly ordered to close then allowed to reopen but with complex safety precautions. Many business owners have said they can't afford to comply and questioned whether the virus was really spreading at their locations.

In a scathing rebuke of the latest order, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco called the business closures ridiculous. “I believe that all jobs are essential to someone," he said.

But police in the city of Stockton said they would help enforce the state's latest order. Police said they'd first try to educate residents about the rules, followed by a warning letter and a citation, if needed. They've issued three citations since the pandemic began.

Andrew Gruel, executive chef and founder of Slapfish seafood restaurant, pointed to examples of elected officials including Newsom dining out as they urged people to limit group gatherings. Gruel said he'll stay open for outdoor dining in Huntington Beach and other Southern California locations unless health officials can show doing so leads to a spike in cases.

“No one is following their own rules. How serious can those rules be if they’re not following their own rules?” Gruel asked in a video posted on social media.

Associated Press writer Adam Beam contributed to this report.

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