Health inspectors and authorities stepped up enforcement at restaurants and shopping malls over the post-Christmas weekend as they desperately seek to curb a coronavirus surge that already has filled some hospitals in California well beyond normal capacity.
Crowding at Los Angeles County shopping malls came under scrutiny before the holiday. Several of them were cited and fined up to $500 for violating COVID-19 measures, which could include not keeping occupancy below 20% capacity and not prohibiting eating and drinking, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.
“We’re going to take a hard look this weekend at the shopping malls because the pictures we’ve been seeing are … another little mini-disaster,” county public health director Barbara Ferrer said. “The occupancy is supposed to be down to 20%. But when you look around, they look way more crowded than 20%. And that just means a complete breakdown of what we are requiring.”
Health officials were waiting to see whether people followed their pleas and avoided Christmas and New Year’s festivities that could lead to a new round of infections and threaten to extend stay-at-home orders in several regions of the state. They repeated warnings before the holiday week that Thanksgiving gatherings where people didn’t wear masks or observe social distancing have resulted in a surge.
Beverly Hills police halted a plan for a secret New Year’s Eve dinner at La Scala after the Italian restaurant circulated invitations to a “discreet” meal that would violate the county’s ban on indoor dining.
In Sonoma County in California’s wine country, a Native American casino announced it was canceling a planned private New Year’s Eve indoor event that could have drawn as many as 4,000 people. The Graton Resort and Casino is on sovereign native land that isn’t subject to state or county health orders, but it had come under scrutiny for the event.
Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have mounted exponentially in recent weeks and are breaking new records. On Christmas Eve, California became the first state in the nation to exceed 2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases.
On Saturday, the state reported more than 30,000 new COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, a 22% decrease from the previous day. Officials said the change was due to a glitch keeping the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health from reporting its daily cases and deaths.
There were 36 new deaths reported.
The first coronavirus case in California was confirmed Jan. 25. It took 292 days to get to 1 million infections on Nov. 11. Just 44 days later, the number topped 2 million.
The crisis is straining the state’s medical system well beyond its normal capacity, prompting hospitals to treat patients in tents, offices and auditoriums.
As of Saturday, California had record numbers of COVID-19 patients in the hospital and in ICUs, at nearly 19,000 and more than 4,000, respectively. The figures showed no increase in hospitalizations, and there were a few more ICU beds available, for a total of around 1,390 statewide, according to the California Department of Public Health.
However, ICU capacity varied between the five regions of the state. The Northern California region had 34% of ICU capacity while the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions were technically at 0% capacity, meaning that they had no more regular ICU beds available. Hard-hit hospitals were resorting to surge capacity by putting patients in areas not originally designated for the same level of care, such as post-operative recovery rooms.
Hospitals have also hired extra staff and canceled elective surgeries — all to boost capacity before the cases contracted over Christmas and New Year’s show up in the next few weeks.