LOS ANGELES - Nearly all social gatherings of individuals from more than a single household will be banned in Los Angeles County for at least three weeks starting Monday under new restrictions local health officials unveiled on Friday, citing a continued surge in COVID-19 infections. The public health order specifically exempts religious services and protests under constitutionally protected rights in an apparent nod to Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a New York state order that had restricted the size of religious gatherings. The Los Angeles County measures, affecting some 20 million people living in and around the nation's second-largest city, go beyond a curfew imposed last week by California Governor Gavin Newsom barring social gatherings and other non-essential activities across most of the state between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Taken together, they represent the most stringent COVID-19 measures imposed on the Los Angeles area since California's first-in-the-nation statewide lockdown in March, early in the pandemic. They also are among the most restrictive in effect nationwide. State and local authorities have instituted, or re-imposed, a wide range of limitations on social and economic activity in hopes of blunting a wave of coronavirus infections raging out of control across the country following a late-summer lull. Political leaders and health officials have also escalated public appeals to pandemic-weary Americans in recent days urging them to stay home, avoid gatherings and curtail Christmas shopping as they wait for promised vaccines. In announcing the latest temporary constraints, L.A. county health officials said the daily tally of newly documented infections had exceeded 4,500 cases for five straight days, crossing a threshold previously set for additional measures to curb the contagion. Under the new L.A. County order, which runs through Dec. 20, residents are advised - but not required - to stay home as much as possible and to always wear face coverings when outside their homes and around others. But any social gatherings of people from more than one household are prohibited, whether in public or private, and whether indoors or outside. The latest order still permits some measure of commercial activity, albeit at reduced levels. It lowers the maximum occupancy levels for "essential" retail businesses, including grocery stores, to 35% of capacity, while non-essential retail locations such as indoor shopping malls and personal care services such as nail salons can remain open at 20% of capacity. Beaches, trails and parks remain open, too, so long as individuals keep their distance from others outside their households and wear a mask. The same applies to golf courses, tennis courts, skate parks and other outdoor recreational venues. All indoor and outdoor service at bars, restaurants, wineries and breweries remains prohibited under an earlier county order that restricted them to takeout and delivery only. Health officials around the country have warned that the holiday travel season and onset of colder weather - leading to greater social mixing and people congregating indoors - is fueling a COVID-19 surge that has sent infections, hospitalizations and deaths to record levels. Nearly 388,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed across Los Angeles County to date, including more than 7,600 deaths, with 10% of all diagnostic tests coming back positive - twice the rate considered concerning by health authorities. REUTERS
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