Orange County gets off COVID watchlist, businesses could reopen in as little as 2 weeks

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Orange County has made it off California’s watchlist. With declining COVID-19 case numbers, students could go back to campuses countywide after Labor Day.

When coronavirus cases surged earlier this summer, the state put counties with the worst numbers on a watchlist. That designation came with extra restrictions. Most counties in the state, including all counties in Southern California, were put on that list. Over the weekend, Orange County joined San Diego and several counties in Northern California in making it off the list.

Some of the thresholds the county had to meet included having fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people, and having fewer than 8% of tests come back positive. Orange County says they’ve hit those targets. 

KCRW Contributor Gustavo Arellano says local politicians see the news as a political victory more than anything.

“The only problem for them is that it’s just inconveniencing them come election time,” says Arellano. “This has been a body politic that has done everything possible to minimize the impact that coronavirus has had on Orange County. So a lot of skeptics are saying, ‘Why should we be paying attention to what the county says?’”

Discrepancies in state and local data have helped feed that skepticism. The county reported 90 cases per 100,000 residents, just below the threshold to get off the watchlist. The state reports double that rate.

Governor Gavin Newsom said in a press conference on Friday that the state will work with the county to determine the right figure.

If the county manages to avoid breaking the COVID thresholds for two weeks, it can begin reopening businesses and schools. Arellano says that doesn’t mean every parent will feel comfortable sending their child back, and that process will be anything but simple.

“These school districts are going to have to deal with this not just on a case-by-case basis, but on a child-by-child basis. If you think it’s chaos now, just wait until … we actually reopen again,” he says.

More than two dozen schools in the county have reopened early with approved waivers from the state. Most of them are private.

It still isn’t clear how many other businesses can expect to reopen if Orange County keeps COVID-19 cases low. Newsom hinted that this week, he’ll relax some of the state’s shutdowns. Right now, indoor dining rooms, salons, gyms, and shopping malls are off limits, but Arellano says they could be next.