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Countdown to red tier begins as Kern County's COVID-19 metrics finally break threshold

Kern County is headed for the red tier after 17 weeks under the state’s strictest lockdown requirements.

In its weekly update of statewide data, the California Department of Public Health revealed Tuesday Kern County had met red tier requirements for the first time since Nov. 16. But Kern is not eligible to begin reopening businesses just yet. The county must qualify for the red tier two weeks in a row before certain lockdown measures can be lifted. Because Tuesday’s update already involved a week’s worth of data, Kern County Public Health Services said March 24 was the earliest Kern County could officially enter the red tier.

"We appreciate our local businesses and residents for their tireless efforts to stay safe and practice safety protocols during these unprecedented times," KCPHS said in the news release. "Our community is encouraged to continue implementing all the healthy habits and adhere to state guidance as we progress through the tiers and begin to reopen our local economy."

COVID-19 has been falling in Kern County for the past several weeks. If the trend continues, restaurants will soon be able to legally serve customers indoors while movie theaters, gyms, and junior and senior high schools will be able to reopen.

"Here in Kern, we’re trending downward in the numbers, and if that continues, that’s going to be good news for our residents and certainly our business community and our schools," said Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop. "We could likely be meeting the orange tier very soon."

The state governs the level of business and social activity that can happen in a county through a system known as the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. In the Blueprint, the state tracks each county’s daily case rate, positivity rate of COVID-19 tests and the positivity rate for the poorest 25 percent census tracts.

Kern County has been in the most restrictive of four tiers set out in the Blueprint, the purple tier.

On Tuesday, the state public health department revealed the latest data, which involved Feb. 28 through March 6. In the data, Kern County reported a case rate of 7.6 new cases per 100,000 residents. The state artificially adjusted Kern’s case rate up to 7.8 because testing levels locally fell below the state average. In order to qualify for the red tier, the case rate must be less than 10.

Kern’s test positivity was reported at 3.7 percent, while the health equity quartile — or test positivity for the poorest census tracts — came in at 4.9 percent. Both must be below 8 percent to qualify for the red tier.

Once in the red tier, restaurants will be able to open at 25 percent capacity, or 100 people. Gyms can open indoors at 10 percent capacity. Movie theaters will be limited to 25 percent capacity or 100 people.

Advancing into the red tier will likely make it easier on businesses that have struggled to survive over the past year.

"For the business community, it’s been a tough slog," Alsop said. "They’ve been whipsawed by this in a number of different ways over the past many months and I think that they are likely seeing this as a hopeful light at the end of a tunnel."

Kern County is one of 10 counties still in the purple tier. However, two metrics already qualify for the next lowest tier, the orange tier. The positivity rate in Kern County must be lower than 4.9 percent and the health equity metric must be lower than 5.3 percent for the county to advance.

In addition, the case rate must fall below 3.9 new daily cases per 100,000 to qualify. While that would mean Kern County would need to nearly cut its case rate in half, it is not implausible.

Last week, Kern County’s adjusted case rate fell by 4 cases per 100,000 residents. A similar drop reported next Tuesday would put Kern on the path toward even further reopenings.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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