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As Coronavirus Cases Spike, California's Early Gains Are Coming Undone


California was one of the states that issued early stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. Even so, the state is among those struggling now to control the coronavirus. New COVID-19 cases there have hit a record high, and hospitalizations have been climbing, too. KPCC's Jackie Fortier has this report.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Looking around Sycamore Grove Park in northeast Los Angeles, you wouldn't know the area has seen a dangerous rise in new coronavirus cases. An ice-cream truck plays music as kids on scooters zoom around the newly reopened playground. Sarah Schwartz and her husband, Pete, are sitting on a blanket 6 feet from their friends. She says most people in the area wear masks.

SARAH SCHWARTZ: There's kids on scooters wearing masks. Like, they're doing it.

FORTIER: Schwartz is one of tens of thousands of people in LA's lucrative entertainment industry who saw their jobs disappear in March. That's when the state was effectively shut down by one of the nation's first stay-at-home orders, issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom.

S SCHWARTZ: I'm a producer and actress, so both jobs that don't exist right now.

FORTIER: The stay-at-home order is widely credited with buying California valuable time to slow the virus' spread and prevent massive death tolls like in New York and New Jersey. But recently, Governor Newsom has allowed counties to reopen at a much faster pace than originally planned.

With Hollywood opening up, Schwartz is going back to work after months of little income, but she's afraid of getting sick.

S SCHWARTZ: I did just book a commercial, so I'll be on set next week. So we'll see how that goes 'cause it'll be my first time with the new COVID regulations and things. And it's a little nerve-wracking.

FORTIER: It's easy to see why. California has gone from coronavirus success story to cautionary tale as new cases hit record daily highs and the number of people requiring hospitalizations has spiked. Robert Kim-Farley, a public health professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, says the stay-at-home order did what it was supposed to do and blunted the pandemic in California. But since Governor Newsom unveiled his fast-tracked reopening plan in early May, the death toll has soared.

ROBERT KIM-FARLEY: I think California's hot spot at the moment is certainly Los Angeles County with the large percentage of the deaths and cases in the state. But, of course, it is the largest county with some 10 million population as well.

FORTIER: In California, young people are driving coronavirus transmission while rates among older folks are dropping. People ages 18 to 49 account for more than half of positive COVID cases in the state when they're just 44% of the population. Kim-Farley thinks it's partially because younger people know they aren't as likely to die from the virus.

KIM-FARLEY: We've had, obviously, recent protests and demonstrations, more young people out again for that. So I think these things are all leading to factors that are increasing rates in younger people at the present time.

FORTIER: Back at the park in LA, Sarah's husband, Pete Schwartz, a freelance animator, sees people mingling in ways unimaginable three months ago.

PETE SCHWARTZ: Maybe older folks got the message, maybe. And then younger folks are like, no, man. I've been stuck inside for the last 100 days. Time to go out. And it doesn't seem that serious. I'm not sick yet. We're on the downturn, so let's get out and party. And that kind of feels like just a really scary way to look at it.

FORTIER: Overall, California is near the national average on coronavirus deaths. But with summer in full swing and more contact inevitable in restaurants and on beaches, public health officials now fear California's early gains could be undone.

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Fortier