Toppling Tiers: How Newsom’s Tier System Hurts Businesses and Schools

By Brandon Ristoff
March 18, 2021

As California is slowly reopening, this is an excellent opportunity to review the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the framework that allows for businesses and schools to reopen in California.

With the new update from the California Department of Public Health on Tuesday, forty-seven counties have reached the red tier, covering 89.7% of Californians. Five counties have reached the orange tier, with the possibility of San Francisco and Santa Clara entering the orange tier next week.

Looking at this framework, we can see some glaring inconsistencies and troubling problems with how California is reopening.

The Four Tiers

Governor Newsom introduced the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” tier system last August to make a “uniform state framework.” For a comprehensive list, here is the California Department of Public Health’s list.

Tier Description What is Allowed Indoors?
Purple Some places are open with very limited capacity; Very few indoor experiences Retail stores, grocery stores, malls, nail salons, personal care services, tattooing and piercing, schools (grades K-2)*, and places of worship
Red Many places are open with very limited capacity; Some indoor experiences All of those in the purple tier as well as: movie theaters, gyms, museums, zoos, theme parks, schools (grades 3 and up)*, and restaurants
Orange Most places are open with limited capacity; More indoor experiences All of those in the red tier as well as: wineries, breweries, distilleries, family entertainment centers, cardrooms, and non-essential offices
Yellow All places are open with higher or no capacity limits (but still with modifications) All of those in the orange tier as well as: bars

Note: As of March 17, 2021

* Just because they could theoretically reopen if they enter this tier, you need to check with your school to see when they will reopen.

The governor also announced a new “green” tier will come out soon, as more people get vaccinated. It is unclear at this point what would be allowed in the proposed green tier.

This list of activities that are allowed to reopen has changed over the past few weeks. Places of worship were originally required to have services outside only when they are in the purple tier, but a recent Supreme Court decision said that indoor services were allowed, assuming capacity limits and other restrictions. 

According to KUSI news, California just recently became the last state to allow outdoor youth sports. Another recent update has allowed fans in baseball parks and stadiums to watch professional sports in both the purple tier (up to 100 people) and the red tier (25% capacity). Previously, this was only allowed in the yellow and orange tiers. Larger theme parks, such as Disneyland and Universal Studios, can now reopen in the red tier (they were previously only allowed to reopen in the yellow tier).

California has had significantly more COVID restrictions than Florida even though they have had a similar COVID death rate. California has the second highest unemployment rate in the country (9.0%), just behind Hawaii. California also had one of the highest case rates during the most recent winter surge, even though nearly all counties were in the purple tier and the state was under a stay-at-home order. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that California tier system has been too restrictive on California businesses and have hurt them. 

The Reopening Lag

Let’s say a county’s COVID numbers for a particular week would situate them in the purple tier, then the following week they have the numbers for the red tier, and then the week after that the numbers would allow them to the orange tier. The presumption would be that in two weeks the county would go from the purple tier to the orange tier, but that is not what happens.

First of all, the numbers that determine which tiers you are in (cases and positivity rates) are already lagged by one week. Second, a county can only move down one tier at a time and must remain in a tier for three weeks before being allowed to move to the next one. And third, regardless of the amount of time they have spent in the current tier, they must have had the COVID numbers for the new tier for two weeks before being able to move down. So under my previous example, the theoretical reopening into the orange tier would be lagged by three weeks at a minimum.

This is important to know because the state of California currently has a 1.8% 7-day positivity rate (after a peak of 17% on January 1), and most counties have only made it to the red tier. Overall, the tier system does not provide for the ability to change as new information comes in on both vaccines and learning from what works in other states. 

How About Schools?

When the original Blueprint for a Safer Economy was introduced last August, all schools could reopen as long as they were in the red tier for two weeks. TK-6 schools could reopen if they received a waiver from their local health department. When winter hit, if schools were previously open, they could have remained open even when they entered the purple tier. 

In December, the governor suggested that elementary schools could reopen within the purple tier if a county has less than 25 daily adjusted cases per 100,000 (middle and high schools would still be open in the red tier), and they would also receive funding as an incentive to reopen. But after disputes with the legislatures, schools, and teachers unions, he changed his mind and then said the grants could be applied for TK-2 grades in the purple tier, and the rest of the grades when it reaches the red tier. 

But even if a school is theoretically allowed to reopen in late March, this does not mean they are required by the state to. Unlike California’s neighbors of Arizona and Oregon who ordered schools offer in-person learning for all schools, California is trying to incentivize reopening through grants, which has not been working. Because in many cases teacher union negotiation is necessary for reopening, many schools will reopen later than the end of March, including LAUSD. Private schools do not have to worry about teachers unions delaying reopening and can open as soon as possible.

This is the unfortunate reality for public school parents in school districts with powerful teachers unions. While they are almost free now to do anything in California, but their children will have to continue to struggle with Zoom classes.

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Brandon Ristoff is a policy analyst for the California Policy Center.

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