California counties warned: Enforce virus rules this holiday

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – California counties that fail to enforce health orders could lose state funding, the governor warned as cases of the coronavirus jumped, prompting renewed closures of businesses and beaches heading into the Fourth of July weekend.

With hospitalizations and infection rates rising, Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered the three-week closures of bars, indoor restaurant dining areas and other indoor venues for 21 of 58 counties, including the two most populous, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Public health officials have pleaded with people to obey social distancing and mask-wearing requirements – and to stay home this holiday because big crowds could further fuel the outbreak.

But law enforcement and other officials in some areas have publicly said they can’t or won’t issue citations or conduct sweeping crackdowns against those who ignore the statewide directives.

While Newsom has acknowledged the difficulty of enforcement for 40 million people, on Friday he warned that local governments could “jeopardize their eligibility for state funding” if they fail to abide by and enforce them.

The state budget that took effect this week includes $2.5 billion intended to help local governments pay for services needed because of the pandemic but the money is contingent on following the emergency health orders.

“We are in unprecedented times,” the governor wrote in letters to local officials, saying it is important to fight the pandemic “as a unified California.”

Meanwhile, many communities have canceled annual fireworks shows and limited or closed beaches. The beach closures began Friday from Los Angeles County northward through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. To the south in Orange County, hugely popular beaches such as Huntington and Newport were to close Saturday and Sunday.

Some, however, were intent on trying to keep it a normal summer: Dozens of surfers caught the Friday morning swells at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach despite LA County’s ban.

“There’s only so many sheriffs so, realistically, they can’t be everywhere all the time, and some people are just going to break the law and break the guidelines of public sense, common decency and the recommendations of our trusted public health officials,” city spokesman Matt Myerhoff said.

San Diego County beaches remained open and saw tens of thousands of visitors on Friday. Many clustered in socially distanced groups when they weren’t splashing in the shallows. But lifeguards said not everyone was obeying public safety rules despite public address system reminders. In Encinitas, lifeguards provided free masks.

Some communities made creative efforts to keep the spirit of the holiday by offering liestreams of “virtual fireworks.”

Napa asked residents to submit photos of their decorated homes and patriotically costumed pets for a city contest. The city of Fremont was hosting a virtual “porch parade,” with judges awarding prizes for the best decorations.

But authorities warned even ordinary gatherings of families and friends have been identified as sources of COVID-19 infections.

On the state’s north coast, far from population centers with millions of people, Humboldt County said Friday that about a quarter of its 144 cases were reported in the past two weeks.

“This has been driven largely by residents gathering and visiting between households both locally and while traveling, as well as by illness occurring in the cannabis industry workforce,” said Dr. Teresa Frankovich, the county health officer.

Meanwhile, California also began putting teeth into the health orders for businesses still allowed to operate, such as limiting the number of customers and making them wear face coverings.

About 200 state inspectors fanned out to enforce the rules on Friday, and similar numbers will be out Saturday and Sunday, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for California’s Office of Emergency Services. About half are from Alcohol Beverage Control, and the rest from the Division of Occupational Safety and Health and other state licensing entities.

They are part of new “strike teams” from 10 state agencies that Newsom on Wednesday said would focus on counties with the most restrictions.

“We will be going directly to those who thumb their nose at public health and safety,” Ferguson said in a statement. The strike teams made 142 contacts with businesses on Thursday, their first day of operation, Ferguson said, and issued seven citations: two in Kern County, three in Los Angeles County and two in Santa Clara County.

The state also is fighting an outbreak in its prisons. The virus is suspected of killing two more death row inmates Friday at San Quentin State Prison, where about 40% of inmates are now infected, corrections officials said. Two other condemned inmates previously died at the prison near San Francisco.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some – especially older adults and people with existing health problems – it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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Thompson reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and AP photojournalist Richard Vogel in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Vendor Vivianne Robinson, wearing a mask to protect from the coronavirus, takes a photo with a pigeon perched on her hand along the Venice Beach strand, Friday, July 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. California’s governor is urging people to wear masks and skip Fourth of July family gatherings as the state’s coronavirus tally rises. Newsom said he’d rely on people using common sense rather than strict enforcement of the face-covering order. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
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