St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica (File photo)

Santa Monica stores, churches and synagogues will be permitted to reopen at decreased capacity under a Tuesday order from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Faith-based organizations may hold in-person services at up to 25% of the maximum number of congregants the building can hold or 100 people, whichever is lower. Lower-risk retailers such as clothing stores, furniture stores and bookshops, including those within indoor and outdoor malls, can open at 50% capacity.

The county order aligns with a Monday announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom permitting houses of worship and lower-risk retail to reopen across the state at diminished capacity. Newsom said Tuesday that salons and barbershops may reopen in counties that have met the public health metrics required to move into Stage 3 of the state’s roadmap to recovery.

Although salons and barbershops will remain closed in Los Angeles County, which has more than 48,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the county will also allow drive-in theaters, flea markets and swap meets to resume operations. People will be able to access pools, hot tubs or saunas provided by their apartment complex or homeowners association.

The order also stipulates that public protests should be limited to 25% of an area’s maximum occupancy or 100 people, whichever is lower.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday that Los Angeles County can continue to reopen in phases because hospitalizations and deaths have continued to fall and the county has adequate testing capacity, personal protective equipment and hospital beds.

She reiterated that people must continue to wear masks, practice physical distancing and stay home if they are sick, elderly or have chronic health conditions.

Of the additional 2 million county residents who will leave their homes to go to work or visit businesses and houses of worship, 40,000 could be infected with coronavirus and many could be unaware of their status, Ferrer said.

If they do not take the proper precautions, they could each infect at least one other person. In a couple of weeks,  80,000 people would be infected and 4,000 would need to be hospitalized.

“There is a lot at stake as we reopen,” Ferrer said.

While more than 1,200 California pastors threatened to resume in-person services this Sunday regardless of whether Newsom allowed it, many Santa Monica religious leaders said it would still be unsafe to bring congregants back to their synagogue or church.

To date, Santa Monica has had 259 confirmed coronavirus cases and 17 deaths. A record low of eight new cases were diagnosed last week.

Rabbi Jeffrey Marx of The Santa Monica Synagogue said he does not plan to reopen the synagogue under the county order because it would be dangerous to bring even a limited number of people into the synagogue’s small sanctuary for in-person services.

“If we’re singing together, I can’t think of a better way to spew droplets into the air,” he said.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom also said singing in an enclosed space would be risky.

“The problem with singing is you need to be more than six feet apart from each other,” he said. “It’s at least 80% of what we do when we gather, which makes it impractical, if not impossible, to do what we’re doing. My obligation is to keep people safe, and I can facilitate a spiritual experience with the technology we’re using.”

Marx said The Santa Monica Synagogue will continue streaming services and classes online for the foreseeable future, and is even planning to hold virtual High Holy Days services this fall.

“We are staying in as best contact as we can with one another,” he said. “But I feel this will continue for months, and I absolutely don’t want to risk peoples health and lives.”

The Rev. Eric Shafer of Mount Olive Lutheran Church said the church has no immediate plans to begin in-person worship and will continue virtual services and meetings.

“It is not a matter of reopening — we never closed,” Shafer said in an email. “Whenever we do return to in-person worship, we plan to continue some sort of online worship. The numbers of attendees online have been double or triple our in-person worship attendances.”

However, St. Monica Catholic Church — one of the largest Catholic parishes in Los Angeles — does intend to reopen in a few weeks with the permission of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said administrative director Felipe Sanchez. The church is developing cleaning procedures and other safety protocols, he said.

“We want to be able to ensure the health and safety of everyone first,” Sanchez said.

Many business owners also plan to reopen their stores, although operating at 50% capacity could make it difficult to turn a profit.

Allison Whitney, co-owner of Santa Monica antiques shop California Rediscovered, said she is planning to reopen the store a few days a week and will continue to build its online store.

But she said she is unsure whether the store will bring in enough in-person sales to justify reopening.

“It might end up costing us money to reopen, because we would be paying someone to be there,” she said. “I don’t know how the public feels about going shopping — we get people peeping in the windows, but I don’t know how they’ll feel about coming in.”

Whitney said the store’s single employee, who has been working to fulfill online orders, has said he would feel safe coming back to the store with a mask and perhaps a plexiglass shield in front of the cash register.

She said customers would be required to wear masks and surfaces would be disinfected every 30 minutes. The store was never crowded before coronavirus, so Whitney isn’t worried about exceeding maximum capacity.

Still, there are lingering questions about the reality of reopening — for example, would customers have put on gloves when they come in, or would they just be asked to refrain from touching the merchandise?

“I think I’ll say please try to not touch anything unless you want to buy it, but our store is so much about nostalgia and browsing and hanging out — that’s what people come to do — so I’m not entirely sure how it’s going to work,” Whitney said.

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  1. Look forward to more cases and deaths as people congregate at the beach, forget to wear masks, and disregard distance requirements. Covid 19 cases are rising in Santa Monica – although at a slower rate.

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