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By Collin Breaux and Zach Cavanagh

As expected by local officials, Orange County moved into the state’s “red tier” for coronavirus monitoring on Tuesday, Sept. 8, effectively allowing more business operations to reopen.

The county is currently listed as being in the red “substantial” tier – the state’s second-highest tier – on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring website. Orange County was previously in the purple “widespread” tier, the state’s highest-risk level.

Operations permitted under the red tier designation, with modifications, include indoor dining for restaurants at 25 percent capacity or 100 people (whichever is less); indoor services for hair salons, barbershops, and nail salons; and indoor operations for gyms and fitness facilities, with a capacity limited to 10 percent.

Additional permitted modified operations are indoor movie theaters at a maximum 25% capacity or 100 people (whichever is less), piercing shops and indoor places of worship at a maximum 25% capacity or 100 people (whichever is less), and libraries at a maximum 50% capacity.

Live theaters, concert venues, convention centers and bars where no meals are provided must still remain closed.

The move down from the purple “widespread” tier—the highest-risk level—to the red “substantial” tier hinged on whether the county could maintain metrics on new cases and test positivity rate.

To qualify for the red tier, a county must have between four to seven new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate between 5% and 8%. Orange County is at 5.2 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 with a 4.2% positivity rate.

Gov. Newsom unveiled the new monitoring system on Aug. 28, which replaced the previous watch list for counties. The rollout of the new system, referred to as the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” came less than a week after the county had been removed from the old watch list.

Concurrent with the state’s new system, Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) recently passed a phased-in, return to campus plan for in-person instruction. If Orange County remains in the red tier, in-person instruction can resume for special education programs and services starting on Sept. 28, preschool through fifth grade starting on Sept. 29 through Oct. 5, middle school starting on Oct. 6 and high school starting on Oct. 13.

Orange County Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the move to the red tier is a significant achievement for the County of Orange and a testament to the hard work and dedicated efforts of “everyone involved in getting us to this point.”

“We need to get our economy moving again in a manner that protects the health and safety of Orange County residents and, at the same time, allows people to get back to work,” Bartlett said. “Our case numbers and testing positivity rates are moving in the right direction, and we need to sustain this trend, so we can continue to push forward, safely and efficiently; it’s time.”

Orange County won’t be eligible to move down a tier again for at least 21 days. To move down, Orange County will need to be at the orange “moderate” tier metrics—under 3.9 new cases per 100,000 and under a 4.9% positivity rate—for 14 consecutive days. If the county has met those metrics for 14 straight days when the 21-day waiting period has passed, it will move down to the next tier.

However, if there is a spike after this Labor Day holiday weekend and the county’s numbers rise back to purple tier levels for 14 straight days, Orange County could be moved back to the purple “widespread” tier.

Overall, Orange County’s numbers have been trending in a positive way for more than the last month.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 8, Orange County has a cumulative total of 49,996 coronavirus cases, with 1,056 deaths and 43,898 estimated recoveries. The county’s most recently reported seven-day average of new daily cases of 215 on Aug. 24 was nearly one quarter of the July 11 high of 851. Orange County has conducted 703,855 tests.

Hospitalizations continue to drop as well, with Orange County hosting 242 COVID-19 hospital patients and 70 COVID-19 ICU patients as of Tuesday. Both numbers are at their lowest since early May.

Locally, new cases have slowed, but the totals continue to climb. As of Tuesday, San Clemente had 456 total cases with four deaths, Dana Point had 252 total cases with two deaths, San Juan Capistrano had 441 total cases with nine deaths, and Rancho Mission Viejo had 58 total cases with fewer than five deaths.

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