Bay Area gets aggressive, state doubles testing

With U.S. infection rates spiking and a far more modest uptick in California, the Bay Area on Friday enacted additional, hard-charging measures to corral COVID-19: San Francisco hit the brakes on reopening, and Santa Clara County sought a legal order against a church that has been flouting restrictions on indoor gatherings.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, state officials unveiled a swiftly built lab that officials say will double the state’s already substantial coronavirus-testing capacity by spring.

Taken together, the day’s actions underscored California’s resolve to manage the pandemic aggressively, even as other states loosen restrictions and struggle with viral transmission.

San Francisco, which has the lowest positivity rate of any major metropolitan area in the country, announced its rollback of some recent reopening moves amid worrisome indicators, including increases in hospitalizations and infections. Just two weeks ago, the city had moved into the yellow tier on the state’s reopening matrix, the least restrictive level.

Friday’s pivot means that restaurants previously approved to expand to 50% indoor capacity will have to stick to the current 25% occupancy, as will indoor places of worship, museums, zoos, aquariums and movie theaters. Plans to allow indoor pools and bowling alleys have been removed from the city’s reopening trajectory for now.

“The last thing we want to do is go backward,” Mayor London Breed said in a news conference Friday. “The last thing we want to do is tell a business or a school that they can open, then tell them they have to close. So we’re proceeding with caution.”

In the South Bay, Santa Clara County officials announced that they had filed suit in Superior Court to stop Calvary Chapel San Jose from holding indoor services. The church had signaled early on during the pandemic that it was not going to abide county restrictions, instead taking guidance from President Donald Trump’s declarations that in-church worship was an essential function.

In a similar clash with North Valley Baptist in Santa Clara, piles of fines and the threat of a court injunction prompted the church to back down and switch to outdoor services. For Calvary Chapel, fines that reached $350,000 did not deter the services, prompting county officials to ask a judge to make them change their ways.

The church has deemed the move “a request to crush the Church’s constitutional rights” while acknowledging many of the allegations regarding its flouting of the rules. In a legal filing, the defendants argued that their activities are not a genuine threat because they have not been linked to an outbreak. They also noted that crowded police-brutality protests over the summer got no such enforcement scrutiny.

But Dr. Arthur Reingold, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, wrote in a declaration supporting the county’s court filing that a church outbreak could just be a matter of time without compliance to health protocols.

Reingold wrote that the risks of COVID-19 transmission from large indoor gatherings are already high and that “adding activities like singing, talking, and noncompliance with social distancing and face covering protocols to what is already a potentially high-risk event, creates the conditions that have led to superspreader events elsewhere.”

The most positive development in the state’s COVID-19 fight Friday came elsewhere, as Gov. Gavin Newsom helped open a brand-new testing lab in the Los Angeles-area city of Valencia. The $100 million project was born from a state partnership with PerkinElmer and was erected in about two months.

Newsom said the lab will be able to add 40,000 daily tests immediately to the state’s capacity. For reference, the state ran about 121,000 tests Thursday. By the time the lab reaches its target goal of 700 employees, Newsom said the facility will be able to process 150,000 tests a day at about $31 apiece, one-fifth of the current average test cost.

“We’ve got to box this disease in, and more testing is foundational,” Newsom said. “But what you do after the tests is the real test of the leadership we need to see at the local, regional state and federal level … tracing and making sure we’re quarantining and isolating individuals.”

Dr. Gil Chavez, co-chair of the state COVID-19 Testing Task Force, said the lab will boost efforts to get rapid testing to hard-hit populations, namely Latinx and Black people and health care workers.

While California’s case rate has jumped 33% in the last two weeks, Newsom said that the test positivity rate has hovered at 3.2%, an indication that at least some of the uptick is due to increased testing.

He noted that that state’s positivity rate is a fraction of what other states have seen in the same time frame. Daily tracking data from Johns Hopkins University shows that Iowa and Wyoming were reporting positivity rates above 30%, with South Dakota registering a whopping 46.3% rate.

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