Alameda County health officials will not allow for the opening of additional businesses as COVID-19 spread increases in Berkeley, Oakland and neighboring cities, with warnings that the region may soon return to more restrictive tiers in the state’s monitoring system.
From September to October the county quickly fell from the purple, or “widespread” tier, to the orange, or “moderate,” tier, meaning a reintroduction of indoor dining and personal care services (with limits on capacity), a green light for in-person learning at local schools, and a loosening of restrictions for retail and other sectors.
But, on Thursday morning, the county health officer said that worsening COVID-19 conditions could bring it back to red, or even purple, when the state announces its next update on Tuesday. Indoor businesses and larger retail capacities are still allowed to operate in the meantime, but this may change if the COVID-19 spread continues to worsen.
The red tier amounts to “substantial” COVID-19 risk in a given county, with four to seven daily new cases per 100,000 residents and between 5-8% of tests coming back positive. The latest tier announcement, on Nov. 10, sent Contra Costa and Santa Cruz counties back to the red tier, and prompted San Francisco to voluntarily shut down indoor dining.
Alameda County has been in the lower, orange tier for about a month, but it’s currently seeing 3.8 cases a day per 100,000 residents (on the far end of orange, bordering on red), with a 1.6% positivity rate.
The “health equity metric,” is at 2.8%. This measures case rates in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged, or have communities with essential workers, low-income, Black, Latino and Pacific Islander residents. Many of these neighborhoods are in Oakland, as identified by the state’s “Healthy Places Index,” and some, like East Oakland, have been hit especially hard by COVID-19.
Dr. Gerard Jenkins, the chief medical officer at Native American Health Center in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, which has one of the highest COVID case rates in the county, said pausing reopening plans is the right thing to do.
“I understand the concern and I think it’s appropriate,” said Jenkins. “Even though I know a lot of people aren’t going to be a fan of that move. It’s necessary.”
Equally as important, he stressed, will be community members complying with the county’s health guidelines.
“I think that there is a sense of COVID fatigue, and not only in Fruitvale. There are people that are getting somewhat complacent with rules,” he said. “People are exasperated with having to deal with COVID and want to still go about their lives. But unless there’s a general consistency from people who are consciously really trying to curb it, and following all those rules and guidelines, I think we’re going to continue to be challenged.”
Cases in Berkeley have also seek a spike since mid-October, when cases were hovering around one or two a day. Now, the average daily caseload is at seven, with what appears to be an upward trajectory, and the positivity rate is at 1.05% — up from 0.48% in previous weeks.
Berkeley Unified School District finally began a much-awaited pilot reopening for students struggling with distance learning on Monday, allowing nine cohorts of 70 total students at Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Jefferson and the new Oxford elementary schools. Even if the county moves all the way back to purple tier, this cohort program will still be allowed, but larger reopening plans for all students and grade levels will be put on hold.
Berkeley’s health officer has the ability to impose even greater restrictions than the county in the coming weeks, but the city has not yet rung the alarm over increasing cases. The city may decide to go this route if community spread worsens, but city spokesman Matthai Chakko said Berkeley has “overwhelmingly” aligned with the county’s guidance, and will remain in close communication with its officials as they decide next steps.
This story has been updated with information from city officials.