L.A. County warns against spring break travel, as potential reopenings near

With Los Angeles County closer to a wider economic reopening than it’s been in months, residents are being urged to double down on the steps necessary to thwart coronavirus transmission — including avoiding travel over the coming spring break season.

Though the nation’s most populous county continues to see a steady, if slowing, slide in terms of newly reported COVID-19 cases, that progress is precarious and could easily be reversed, officials say.

“With increased case numbers in other states, and more circulating variants of concern, spring travel can lead to another surge that, frankly, would be almost impossible to tolerate,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Thursday. “Travel increases the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.”

Officials pointed out that the county’s travel advisory is still effective, meaning anyone who arrives from out of state must self-quarantine for 10 days.

That advisory also recommends county residents “stay within 120 miles from their place of residence” and avoid travel unless it’s necessary for work, study or medical care.

“Please postpone travel and continue doing your part to slow the spread so that our recovery journey isn’t sidelined,” Ferrer said.

L.A. County’s recent warning is based not just on caution, but on experience. Travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, health officials say, poured gasoline on California’s fall surge — creating a massive viral inferno that rampaged across the state for weeks.

More recently the numbers of new cases and people battling COVID-19 in the hospital have plummeted statewide.

Over the past week, L.A. County has reported an average of 1,519 new coronavirus cases per day, a 32% decrease from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.

“We have returned to the levels of new cases we saw just before the surge,” Ferrer said earlier this week.

Also promising is that the county has yet to see a notable uptick in infections stemming from the Super Bowl or February holidays such as the Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day or Presidents Day weekend.

As of Wednesday, there were 1,341 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized countywide — a number not seen since mid-November. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care, 429, was the lowest since Nov. 23, state data show.

Still, optimism in the time of COVID is often couched in caution.

It was almost exactly a year ago that L.A. County first declared a COVID-19 emergency, and though the region has learned much since then, those lessons have come at an almost incalculable cost.

Almost 22,000 Angelenos have died from COVID-19, and nearly 100 more are still losing their battle with the disease every day.

That, officials stress, is why it remains important for residents to keep their guard up — and remain committed to behaviors and measures that can help keep the coronavirus at bay, such as wearing masks in public, avoiding crowds and regular hand washing.

“We have a clear path forward, Los Angeles, out of this hell that we’ve been living in for the last year,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday. “But looking ahead, it won’t be automatic. It won’t be easy. And yes, we will still face headwinds.”

Light is starting to peek over the horizon, however. With the sustained and significant slide in cases, L.A. County is now close to moving from the purple tier — the strictest level in California’s four-category reopening road map — into the more permissive red tier.

Reaching the red would allow dining rooms and movie theaters to reopen with capacity at 25% or up to 100 people, whichever is fewer; gyms and dance and yoga studios to open at 10% capacity; museums, zoos and aquariums to open indoor activities at 25% capacity; and stores, indoor malls and libraries to open at 50% capacity.

L.A. County has never moved out of purple since the state implemented the tiered system in late August.

Doing so will require the county to record an adjusted daily coronavirus case rate at or below 7.0 new cases per day per 100,000 people for two weeks. The latest local figure was 7.2.

However, that could soon change after the state unveiled revisions to the reopening blueprint this week.

California will now dedicate 40% of available COVID-19 vaccines to residents in the most disadvantaged areas — including areas such as South Los Angeles, the Eastside, Koreatown, Compton, southeast L.A. County and the eastern San Fernando Valley.

Once 2 million doses have been administered in these communities, the state will relax the threshold to enter the red tier, allowing counties with a rate of up to 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people to progress.

In other words, L.A. County could be poised to exit the purple tier as soon as next week, though that’s dependent both on the state hitting its vaccine target and the county’s case rate remaining low enough.

Should the county remain on the right path, moving up a tier could be just the first step toward a future that looks closer to the pre-pandemic normal than the last few months.

“We could be in the last few miles of this terrible race that we’ve been running, close to putting this awful pandemic behind us,” Garcetti said. “Every day more Angelenos are vaccinated. Every day, winter retreats, and warmer weather is coming. Every day we remain committed to doing those little things that collectively have such a big impact on how we can defeat this virus.”

But, he continued, “the future is not guaranteed.”

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