By Don Ford

WALNUT CREEK (CBS SF) — A steady increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past week has forced Contra Costa County health officials to pause easing restrictions placed on local businesses in an attempt to stem the current surge of new infections.

County Supervisor Candace Andersen received an early morning call from the County’s health officer, Dr. Chris Farnitano.

“Our health officer called me very early this morning and said, ‘We need to slow things down,'” said Andersen

Dr. Farnitano said that, while the county remains at the Orange Tier level of the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system, the rise of new cases is concerning.

The most recent infection data has revealed an adjusted rate of 4.9 daily cases per 100,000 people in Contra Costa – above the orange-tier benchmark of fewer than 4 per 100,000 people.

If those numbers hold for another week or increase, health officials warned, Contra Costa County will be forced back into the more restrictive Red Tier.

Two weeks ago, there were 14 people hospitalized for COVID in the county, Farntino said. By November 2, that number increased to 40.

So Farnitano issued new orders Wednesday limiting the number of spectators allowed at professional and collegiate sporting events, while also re-imposing restrictions on other high-risk activities.

“Let’s just go ahead and start restricting some things this week and hopefully we can tamp down the increased spread we’re seeing right now,” she said.

“If the trend continues, the county is at risk of moving backward into the more-restrictive red tier of the state’s reopening plan as soon as next week,” health officials warned in a news release Wednesday. “In the meantime, Contra Costa has amended its health orders to rein in some of the riskier indoor activities permitted under the orange tier in hopes of preventing outbreaks and keeping the county out of the red.”

Farnitano also issued another order restoring stricter limitations on high-risk activities, such as prolonged indoor gatherings and gatherings involving eating and drinking where masks must be removed.

Under the new order, select high-risk activities must be modified:

  • Outdoor bars prohibited (except where allowed under restaurant guidance with drinks as part of a meal)
  • Indoor dining allowed at a maximum of 25% occupancy or 100 people, whichever is fewer (down from 50% occupancy and 200 people)
  • Indoor movie theaters can operate at a maximum 25% of occupancy or 100 people, whichever is fewer (down from 50% occupancy or 200 people)
  • Religious services indoors allowed at a maximum 25% occupancy or 100 people, whichever is fewer (down from 50% occupancy or 200 people)
  • Cardrooms and satellite wagering sites can’t operate indoors (they previously could operate indoors at 25% capacity)

“We believe these measures are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID in our community,” Farnitano said.

The order in Contra Costa County will go into effect Friday.

Businesses were looking forward to finally opening up to 50 percent capacity until the announcement.

Masses Sports Bar and Grill has set up both outdoor and indoor seating to take advantage of expanded capacity. Pool tables are being used as dining tables. Signs everywhere remind customers to stay six feet apart, wear masks and no handshakes.

“Amping up, spending more money, getting some more chairs out; and then they take it away from us,” said co-owner Eric Parden. “Which, I understand it needs to get done, but it’s hard as a small business.”

“I’m just so glad I’m not in the restaurant business!” exclaimed customer Terry Murphy, who was surprised the numbers are up. “They were kind of opening up to 50 percent and now, I’m worried this will put ’em out of business.”

Supervisor Andersen said she is sensitive to the business community.

“It can be a store owner, a landlord, others. Of course they want to get back to business and of course we all want to get back to normal operations,” said Andersen. “But they also recognize the health implications of this.”

Over the past months, the Bay Area counties have varied in their approach to opening or not opening businesses and activities.

Last Friday, San Francisco pulled back on the city’s timeline for opening, pausing some planned changes indefinitely. Alameda and Santa Clara have all taken a slower pace than the state tier system allows. All three of these counties are essentially operating at red tier level restrictions even though they are in Orange or Yellow tiers.

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