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Coronavirus Update: California Partially Reopens


As of today, restaurants in a dozen Northern California counties can reopen their dining rooms. They're the first to do so as part of Phase 2. That is the second step in Governor Gavin Newsom's four-step plan to reopen the state's economy. In Roseville, Calif., restaurant owner Khurrum Masud says he is excited for business to pick up.

KHURRUM MASUD: Now that dining room is opening up, I think that takeout and delivery - that's the new norm. People are going to stay with it. And as well as we're going to be attracting more business to it. So I think we will need to hire more people and put more people to work.


Restaurants that do decide to resume business under Phase 2 have to comply with a number of conditions including screening potential customers at the door. The best way to do that sort of screening is still an open question, not just for customers but for employees.

CHANG: For more, I'm joined now by NPR's science correspondent Allison Aubrey and national correspondent Eric Westervelt. Hey to both of you.


ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there. Good to be here.

CHANG: All right, Eric. Let's start with you. You are in Roseville, which is in Placer County. That's one of the counties here in California where dining rooms are reopening. What does it look like there right now?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it was interesting. I'm at this kind of restaurant plaza northeast of Sacramento in Roseville. There are about a dozen restaurants and cafes here. And, you know, some of them have been, you know, doing takeaway only since the shelter-in-place started...

CHANG: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: ...In March. But last night, the word went out, you know, that restaurants in the county can really start to do the sit-down welcome - you know, sit down customers with these restrictions. And, you know, restaurant owners I talked to said a kind of a buzz went around where they said, you know, we can start to partially reopen. Some of those restrictions include, you know, space between tables. They have to have a cleaning plan. They got to ask people to wear masks when not eating or drinking among some other rules. And I caught up with Khurrum Masud. He runs this restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, here. He and his crew were super busy, sort of frantically trying to pivot from takeout only to sit-down service as well.

MASUD: We are excited that we are finally going to be opening up completely, and we're going to be able to put all of our employees to work. That's the most exciting piece. We have - we have to go and take all of our precautions. Everybody's going to have face masks, and, you know, we're going to do our due diligence to keep everybody safe.

WESTERVELT: You know, he added though that, you know, given these new restrictions, he'll only be about half full. And he conceded, you know, this is going to be an adjustment. It's new. It's going to be a challenge. It'll take time. But all the restaurant owners I talked to here, you know, were pretty excited to at least start getting back to sit-down...

CHANG: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: ...Business.

CHANG: You say he's expecting only about half-full. I mean, I was just about to ask, what about customers? Does it seem like people are totally ready to just go back to restaurants, plop down at tables, and resume normal life again?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, there was a kind of buzz here when, you know, people were showing up around lunchtime for usual, you know, takeout and were told, like, hey, you can come back for a sit-down meal. It's tonight. And there's a, tonight? You know, the word is - was just sort of getting out. And most folks I talked to here in Roseville said, you know, they're ready to do that. No one in Placer County that I've seen driving around today, at least out in these public areas, was really wearing a mask. That was really the exception except these restaurant owners. I caught up with Karen (ph) and Dave Mace (ph). They're retirees. They wanted to come here for lunch. They were not wearing masks, and they told me, you know, we've just had enough of the shelter-in-place orders. And they said, you know, we really welcome the freedom, as they put it, to choose to go out to eat or not.

KAREN MACE: I was so happy. We were looking at all these restaurants opening going, we can go out, you know? It's like, I don't know. You just got to be careful. I mean, it's just like driving a car. Are we going to wait 14 days until there's no accidents on the road before we let people drive, you know? I mean, it's like, realistically, somebody is going to kill you, you know.

DAVE MACE: You got to live. I mean, even my dog is losing his mind.


WESTERVELT: And they both told me...

CHANG: My dog, too.

WESTERVELT: Right. He said, look, we're mindful of risks here, and we're going to wear masks in the restaurant as we're told in between ordering and things like that. But they emphasized, you know, in their words, you know, we can't keep killing the economy over this. And I think that's really a common sentiment throughout some of these more rural counties that I've been traveling in today.

CHANG: Well, Allison, let's turn to you. I mean, with California and many other states taking steps to reopen, how are employers thinking about bringing people back into the workplace, the physical office?

AUBREY: Sure. I think they're really just scrambling to figure it out. I mean, there's a constellation of measures being tried - temperature and symptom checks to screen employees. Big employers such as Wal-Mart and Amazon have been using temperature checks. Some companies do this on-site. Some send thermometers home. I spoke to Michael Angarone. He's an infectious disease doc at Northwestern University. And he says, infrared thermometers used as people enter the workplace can be helpful. They're very quick. Now, they're not perfectly accurate, but if you screen everyone, you get a good sense.

MICHAEL ANGARONE: You kind of see what is the baseline temperature of all the employees coming into work. And if you have someone who has an elevated temperature above that, that would be someone that you double-check their temperature.

AUBREY: They'd get an oral temperature check for accuracy. Now, of course, this won't help detect people who are infected with the virus but are asymptomatic, so it won't be the only screening tool.

CHANG: Well, speaking of asymptomatic, I mean, do scientists have a good sense now of how many people out there have coronavirus but are not exhibiting symptoms? And if it is a lot of people, could this be a big problem in trying to keep workers safe?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I think that there's still a lot to learn, but the World Health Organization has estimated that about 75% of people infected do develop symptoms. About 25% are asymptomatic. So when we hear about silent spreaders, they tend to fall into kind of three categories - people who never develop symptoms, this tends to be younger people - kids, teens, young adults, not always - people who are pre-symptomatic, they may get other people sick just as they're becoming infectious but don't have symptoms, so, you know, don't know that they're infected yet, and this could be a problem for workplace screenings. And then finally, I think there are people who are mildly symptomatic. They never get the fevers or coughs, but they may feel tired or have chills. So it's going to be tricky for workplaces to screen. People...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Are going to need to be super compliant with other measures such as, you know, the handwashing, the mask-wearing, and stay home if they feel sick.

CHANG: Yes. Stay home if you feel sick. Eric, back...

AUBREY: That's right.

CHANG: ...To you, back to California. Much of the state is still under more restrictive guidelines, especially in bigger urban areas like here in LA, where I am. Do you have any sense of how long this is going to last? And please give me some hopeful news here.

WESTERVELT: Well, not a lot of hope. I mean, LA and the Bay Area have signaled that the shelter-in-place restrictions could last well into June and July, if not longer. I mean, no one wants to see a spike in infections, you know, from reopening too soon. Governor Gavin Newsom today said, look, another 87 Californians died yesterday from COVID-19. He called it, you know, another sobering reminder that people need to continue to take this seriously.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR national correspondent Eric Westervelt and science correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thanks to both of you.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.