It’s been over a month since California moved from a county monitoring system to a new framework based on tiers. The new system assesses county metrics weekly and assigns color-coded tiers based on daily case numbers and positivity rates. Counties must stay in their respective tiers for three weeks before moving. They can move to a less restrictive tier once they have met that tier’s criteria for two weeks in a row. If their numbers worsen for two weeks, they will be moved to a more restricted tier.
The system also has equity measures built in. The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities with African-Americans, Latinos, and low-income and essential workers. Latinos account for nearly 50 percent of Covid-19 deaths despite making up 38 percent of the state’s population.
To combat this disparity, state health officials introduced a metric to help mitigate transmission rates in vulnerable communities. The new equity metric is applied to counties with populations greater than 106,000 and stipulates that for a county to move forward, it has to ensure that test positivity rates in its most disadvantaged neighborhoods do not significantly lag behind overall county test positivity rates.
Although there are concerns that additional measures would delay counties from advancing, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary, said in his briefing on Tuesday that so far, none of the counties have been held back because of the equity metric. In fact, Humboldt County moved into the least restrictive tier this week in part because of its focus on equity, he said.
What does each tier mean?
There are four color-coded tiers ranging from most restrictive to least: purple, red, orange and yellow. When the system was introduced in August, 38 counties were in the most restrictive purple tier. This week, that number was down to 16 counties, including Los Angeles, Imperial and Mendocino. These counties have reported widespread infections, and most indoor businesses remain closed.
Counties in the red tier have sustained a substantial spread of infections and are allowed to resume some indoor activities with limited capacities. There are 24 counties in this tier, including San Diego, Riverside and Sacramento. Counties in this tier can open gyms and movie theaters at limited capacity. They are also allowed to open schools for in-person instruction if they have been in the tier for at least two weeks in a row.
There are 18 counties in the orange and yellow tiers, which allow for more indoor activities, like eating in restaurants. With seven counties in the yellow tier, Dr. Ghaly said there were no immediate plans to create a new level with even fewer restrictions. There are still months of flu season to get through, he said.
Which counties are moving forward and which are going backward?
Dr. Ghaly said that he’s “seeing movement” in terms of counties moving through the tiers. Since the end of August, 22 counties have moved from the purple tier into the red and a number are coming close to qualifying for the orange tier.
In the past week, Merced, Ventura and Yuba Counties have moved forward into the red tier. Inyo County has moved into the orange tier. Humboldt, Plumas, Siskiyou and Trinity Counties are newly in the yellow tier.
However, a few counties have moved backward, including Shasta, which moved back to red, and Tehama, which moved back to purple, the most restrictive tier.
How does this affect school reopenings?
To reopen schools for in-person learning, counties must be in the red tier for at least two consecutive weeks. This week, schools in at least 32 counties have been allowed to reopen and the three counties that recently moved into the red tier have two weeks to plan for reopening, should they chose to do so. Some counties have not rushed to reopen schools, despite being eligible.
After Alameda County moved to the red tier this month, officials announced that they were reopening elementary schools on Oct. 13 but that middle and high schools would remain closed for four to 12 weeks so that officials could gauge the impact of reopening elementary schools on transmission rates.
Some experts argue that allowing higher risk sectors of the economy to reopen, like indoor dining, while keeping schools shuttered is misguided.
“When masks come off, especially indoors, transmissions occur. We learned this far too well in July,” said Dr. Jeanne A. Noble, an emergency medicine doctor and the director of the Covid-19 response at U.C.S.F. Medical Center’s emergency department.
“School is the essential business of childhood,” she said. “Prioritizing restaurants and bars over the social well-being of our youth is a misalignment of social priorities.”
Looking at the counties where schools have been open for a few weeks, Dr. Ghaly said that he has not yet seen a connection between increased transmissions and school reopening or in-person learning.
“It’s encouraging to see the tremendous effort and planning that communities and schools and their staff have done,” he said. “We’re seeing the fruits early on and I think that’s encouraging for all of California.”
Here’s what else we’re following
The pandemic has changed the way we travel, maybe forever. So The Times’s Travel section is doing its annual 52 Places to Go feature differently, too.
Rather than produce a list of far-flung, awe-inspiring destinations that editors and reporters have decided are worth visiting in 2021, our colleagues want to hear from readers about places that are special to you and why.
In California, we know there are many that fit the bill.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.