California imposes nighttime COVID-19 curfew but some resist

California is imposing a nighttime curfew as its coronavirus figures soar but it will lean heavily on voluntary compliance and sheriffs of some counties say they won’t enforce it.

What officials are calling a limited stay-at-home order requires people who are not on essential errands to stay home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Saturday. The order will last until Dec. 21 but could be extended if disease trends don’t improve.

The curfew is less strict than the near-total ban on nonessential business and travel that Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed in March and which he credited with flattening the rate of COVID-19 cases, despite a summer peak.

But along with many other states, California is now seeing surges in virus infections, hospitalizations and deaths that threaten to overwhelm its health care system.

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The first lockdown affected all residents, day and night, but Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health officer, said late at night is the time most likely to involve social activities that bring increased risk of infection, particularly if people drink and let down their guard on precautions such as wearing masks and staying a safe distance apart.

The curfew covers 94% of the state’s nearly 40 million residents. It’s in place in 41 of the state’s 58 counties that have the most significant increases in virus cases and face the most severe restrictions under California’s four-tier system for reopening the economy.

Hospitalizations are up nearly 64% in two weeks and the positivity rate — the percentage of people testing positive for the virus — has increased more than 50% and now stands at 5.6% for the last seven days.

"The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge. We are sounding the alarm," Newsom said in a statement Thursday.

The state recorded 11,478 cases Thursday, its highest total since mid-August.

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About 12% of positive cases end up requiring hospitalizations, Ghaly said, meaning that based on just the one-day total about 1,200 people will be in hospitals in the next two to three weeks.

"There is no single culprit" for the hikes, Ghaly said, but among other things he cited people mixing more both indoors and out, especially for celebrations and holidays such as Halloween and ahead of Thanksgiving, when many will be tempted to gather with family and friends.

But he called the curfew a focused and targeted effort that would allow some activities to continue "because we’re fatigued" by months of COVID-19 restrictions.

"This idea of COVID fatigue, COVID resentment is an important piece," Ghaly said.

The curfew comes just days after the state imposed tougher restrictions limiting business operations in the 41 counties. The new health order does not close any businesses. However, nonessential businesses must shut their doors by 10 p.m., though restaurants will be permitted to offer takeout and delivery after that time.

People can still shop for groceries, get medical care, pick up prescriptions and take care of other essential needs during the curfew hours.

"Yes, I can walk my dog at 11 p.m. if that’s your tradition and routine," Ghaly said.

Ghaly said local jurisdictions can use the curfew to enforce health orders "to the extent that they believe it helps them control these activities that could add to the transmission."

Sheriffs in counties including El Dorado, Orange and Sacramento were quick to say they would not enforce the curfew.

Curt Hagman, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, said he understands the need for the state to drive home the message that residents must keep their guard up against the virus, but he doesn’t see a curfew as the way to do it.

"We’re not going to be sitting out arresting people if they’re out at 10:30 at night. We don’t have the resources," he said.

Officials in Fresno and Placer counties say they won’t enforce state rules, and two Republican state lawmakers are trying to rally 14 Northern California counties to formally call for a local approach that emphasizes reopenings.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said he wouldn’t enforce a nighttime curfew for restaurants and nonessential retail businesses in the nation’s most populous county, where cases more than doubled in the last two weeks and hospitalizations rose 30%.

The county has seen more than 350,000 cases and nearly 7,400 deaths.

Villanueva tweeted that since the first stay at home orders were issued in March, "we have focused on education and voluntary compliance, with criminal enforcement measures being an extreme last resort."

"We trust in the community and rely on people to assess risk and take precautions as appropriate," he tweeted.

In San Diego County — the state’s second-most populous with 3.3 million residents — Sheriff Bill Gore on Thursday announced a "full-time law enforcement presence" to get more businesses to comply with California’s tightening coronavirus restrictions, joining one of the most aggressive enforcement efforts in the state.

However, Gore said he needed more time to study the curfew order before he takes a position on enforcing it in San Diego County.

He also urged people to follow safety behaviors.

"Bottom line is wear those damn masks out there, socially distance, and the sooner we do that, the sooner we’re going to get through this crisis," Gore said.