After weeks of improving COVID-19 numbers, Fresno County has advanced to the next tier in the state’s reopening framework known as the Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
The county is the first in the San Joaquin Valley to graduate out of the purple tier, the most restrictive level that denotes “widespread” infection, to the red tier, signifying “substantial” infection. As of Sept. 29, the county is reporting 6.2 cases of the virus per 100,000 residents (below the threshold of 7 per 100,000 required for the red tier), and a testing positivity rate of 4.9 percent (which is low enough to qualify for the orange tier, one level beyond red).
The designation brings changes to many business and social sectors, including places of worship, gyms, restaurants and movie theaters, which had previously been outdoors-only but are now allowed to operate indoors with reduced capacity. Those businesses that had already been allowed indoors, including hair and nail salons and retail stores, can now increase their maximum capacity. Bars and breweries where no meal is provided, however, are still to remain closed until the county enters the orange tier.
The change also paves the way for schools to reopen. Although elementary schools could apply for waivers for in-person instruction in the purple tier, all schools will be allowed to reopen in person once the county has remained in the red tier for two consecutive weeks.
Although not required, county Health Education Specialist Alejandro Villegas encouraged school districts to submit proposals to the county outlining their plans for masking, social distancing, and preparations in the event that students or staff test positive for the virus. “There’s a lot of people inside a classroom, or inside a school in general, and that’s a potential for an outbreak,” he said during a media call on Tuesday. “Those things are important, and those kinds of things are something to think about when you’re implementing those measures in your school campus.”
Regressing back to the purple tier is a possibility, warned Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra during the call. “I think that this is a very joyful moment for many members of our community, but we still have to be very mindful about the preventive aspect because we’re not out of the woods yet and we really have to stay cautious,” he said. “We want to get this right, we want to proceed carefully, we definitely want to support all of the businesses and other entities that are now permitted to proceed.”
Staying cautious, Vohra said, involves continuing to wear masks and practice social distancing, as well as getting a flu shot, which could help keep patients out of hospital beds. “This is really a disease that affects and causes hospitalizations and fatalities in all age groups, year after year after year,” he said. “Both of those look very similar, they obviously land people in the hospitals, so we want to minimize the burden of taking care of either one of those illnesses as much as possible.”
All other counties in the Valley and foothills remain in the purple tier, except for Mariposa County, which began in the orange category and advanced to the least restrictive yellow tier earlier in September.