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Coronavirus death toll tops 3,500 in California as most of state moves to reopen

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LOS ANGELES — Coronavirus-linked deaths reached another grim milestone in California this week, topping 3,500, even as officials move to further reopen the state’s economy.

The sobering statistic illustrates that although the week has seen glints of optimism that the state is turning the tide in its fight against COVID-19, the disease is still there, and the danger is still real.

California recorded 132 new coronavirus-related fatalities Tuesday — the most in a single day since the pandemic began.

Los Angeles County remains the hotbed of coronavirus activity in the Golden State. California’s most populous county has reported 1,976 fatalities, roughly 56% of the state’s total death toll, and accounts for almost half of the more than 86,000 infections that have been confirmed statewide.

Despite the magnitude of its caseload, the county is making progress. Its transmission rate recently hit the lowest level seen since the coronavirus outbreak began to mushroom in March.

Though the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise, much of California has progressed to a point where officials feel it’s safe to further lift portions of the state’s stay-at-home order and allow more businesses to reopen.

The number of newly identified coronavirus cases across the state declined from the previous week, and hospitalizations have dropped more than 15% from a peak six weeks ago, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

As of Thursday morning, 40 of California’s 58 counties had received approval to progress more quickly through Phase 2 of the state’s reopening road map — meaning they can open restaurant dining rooms and more retail businesses for in-store shopping.

The list of counties that can ramp up their reopening efforts now includes San Diego — the state’s second-most populous — Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Officials emphasize, however, that residents and businesses still need to take steps to prevent transmission of the virus.

“These businesses are required to follow detailed guidelines from the state to protect the health of employees and customers,” San Luis Obispo officials wrote on the county’s Facebook page. “We all need to continue taking precautions to keep our community safe, like washing hands frequently, staying home if sick and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others when out in public.”

In Los Angeles County, which doesn’t currently meet the state’s criteria for a wider reopening, Supervisor Janice Hahn is calling for Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow all retail businesses statewide to open, subject to the same public health protocols — including limiting capacity, and requiring face coverings for employees and customers as well as physical distancing.

Doing so, she said Thursday, would help level the playing field between retailers that had to close because of coronavirus restrictions and larger ones such as Walmart, Costco and Target that have been allowed to stay open throughout the pandemic.

“What seemed to be a necessary measure at the early onset of this crisis has unintentionally created winners and losers in this ‘pandemic economy,’ with large retail businesses able to operate, while small retail businesses are struggling and limited to curbside pickup,” Hahn said in a statement. “This needs to change.”

What remains to be seen is whether customers will come back.

Just because patrons can return doesn’t mean they are comfortable doing so, especially as businesses still must meet adhere to the physical-distancing and sanitation requirements and other measures.

Still, a return to normal is undoubtedly an allure for some.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

“The feedback from our shoppers is that they are very excited to get back to a sense of normalcy,” said Natasha Shelton, the senior general manager for the Chico Mall in Butte County and the Yuba Sutter Mall in Yuba City. “They are treating themselves to a nice set of shoes or some other item they’ve been used to, to boost their mood. This is something they treasured before, and they’re treasuring it even more now.”

Even though the state recently relaxed its reopening rules — which made it possible for more-populated urban counties to qualify — some counties have pushed to go further.

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted this week to move all the way through Phase 3, which would allow in-person religious services to resume and movie theaters, shopping malls, salons, gyms and dine-in restaurants to reopen.

“This is going to be one of those events that changes our lives forever,” Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said Wednesday. “Business is not going to be done in same way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do business.”

For those caught between what the state allows and what local governments permit, the question of whether to open is challenging.

“It’s a very tough situation,” said Shelby Massey, the owner of Studio 622 Salon & Spa in Yuba City. “I have pressure from people wanting to go back to work, clients wanting to come in and see their stylists, and state officials and the licensing board to stay closed.”

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(Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.)

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