Bay Area guide to COVID-19 rules: What each county allows

A new wave of coronavirus cases in the Bay Area and beyond in the fall is again leading some counties to increase restrictions aimed at stopping the virus's spread.

It's the third surge of COVID-19 cases during the global pandemic.

None of the Bay Area counties escaped the change in case levels. On Nov. 16, Gov. Newsom announced he was pulling the brakes on reopening plans. The move came as 41 counties, including six of the nine in the Bay Area, were in the purple tier, the most restrictive. San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin were the three left in the slightly looser red level, although as of Nov. 28, only Marin remained in the red.

Purple-tier counties are also under an overnight curfew that will be in place at least until Dec. 21. 

There are purple, red, orange and yellow tiers. COVID-19 is "widespread" in purple counties. Red counties have a "substantial" outbreak. Orange has "moderate" cases while yellow have "minimal." 

As of November 28, this is where each Bay Area county stood in the tier system:

  • Alameda - Purple
  • Contra Costa - Purple
  • Marin - Red
  • Napa - Purple
  • San Mateo - Purple
  • San Francisco - Purple
  • Santa Clara - Purple
  • Solano - Purple
  • Sonoma - Purple

To see the status of other California counties and more detailed information about what's open, click here.

Although Gov. Newsom touted the color rating as simpler to comprehend, many may still find it complicated. That's because even though the state grants specific permissions for each tier, counties may be more cautious than what is allowed. 

See below to find out each county's unique approach to reopening. 

With changes happening to the rules happening so frequently, there's confusion for residents trying to remember what's allowed and prohibited. 

Here are the general rules for what is permitted at each tier.

PURPLE TIER
Some indoor operations are allowed in purple counties.

Hair salons and barbershops that obey certain restrictions, such as mask requirements, can open indoors. So can malls and shops that reduce capacity to 25%. 

Personal care services, such as nail spas, can serve customers outdoors only with other restrictions.

Museums, places of worship movie theaters and gyms, can also only allow people to gather at outdoor facilities, likewise with modifications.

Restaurants, bars and breweries serving meals and wineries can serve customers outdoors by upholding some COVID-19 modifications. Bars, breweries and distilleries that don't serve meals must remain closed. 

Hotels can open with restrictions. 

RED TIER
Like purple counties, barbershops and hair salons are allowed to serve customers inside retail spaces. 

Malls and indoor shopping can operate at 50% of capacity with restrictions. Personal services can be open indoors too.

Museums and zoos may open indoor exhibits at a reduced capacity. Likewise, churches, temples and other places for religious worship can hold indoor services at reduced capacity.

Gyms and fitness centers can open with capacity limits. Restaurants and bars, breweries and distilleries that serve meals can open indoors with restrictions. Wineries can serve customers outside.

Bars that don't serve food must be closed.

Hotels can open with increased capacity. 

ORANGE TIER
Indoor salons and barbershops can open with modifications.

Indoor shopping and malls can open with restrictions. Food courts may open with restrictions. 

Personal care services can serve customers indoors too. 

Gyms, museums, houses of worship and movie theaters are open with increased capacity compared to the red tier. 

Likewise, restaurants and bars preparing food can serve customers indoors at increased capacity compared to the red tier. 

Wineries may open indoors with restrictions. 

Bars, breweries and distilleries that don't serve food can open outdoors. 

Some indoor gathering places, like bowling alleys, may open. 

Indoor salons and barbershops can open with modifications.

Indoor shopping and malls can open with restrictions. Food courts may open with restrictions. 

Personal care services can serve customers indoors too. 

Gyms, museums, houses of worship and movie theaters are open with increased capacity compared to the red tier. 

Likewise, restaurants and bars preparing food can serve customers indoors at increased capacity compared to the red tier. 

Wineries may open indoors with restrictions. 

Bars, breweries and distilleries that don't serve food can open outdoors. 

Some indoor gathering places, like bowling alleys, may open. Cardrooms may open outside with restrictions.

YELLOW TIER
The yellow tier has the most permissions, but many restrictions will still be in place. Hair salons and barbershops are open with restrictions as are indoor malls and other retail operations. 

Restrictions will be in place at indoor personal care facilities. Museums and zoos may open indoor exhibits too with limitations. 

Places of worship, movie theaters and gyms are open with higher capacity than the orange tier. 

Restaurants and bars and breweries serving food can be open indoors with increased capacity compared to the orange tier. Bars and breweries that don't serve food can serve customers al fresco with restrictions. 

Gathering places like bowling alleys are permitted to expand capacity compared to the orange tier. 

Cardrooms can open modified operations indoors.

Alameda County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

Alameda County officials said on November 12 that they would delay any additional relaxation of the pandemic rules, but their voluntary move was upstaged on November 16 when it was one of dozens of counties that dropped into the purple tier.

Within Alameda County, the city of Fremont has stricter rules about face masks that mandate employees and customers wear them at all times while at an essential business, according to Eater

Contra Costa County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

Contra Costa County continued a backward slide on November 16 when it reverted to the purple tier.

That came less than a week after fell back to the red tier on November 10, leading to a slew of tighter rules. Outdoor bars that don't serve food were told to close, as were entertainment venues, like bowling alleys, among other changes.

The purple tier allowed Contra Costa county to reopen indoor hair salons and shopping malls on August 31. 

Prior to that, a major update to the COVID-19 rules in Contra Costa County was on July 28 when officials authorized fines for violations of the public health orders. Individuals who don't wear face masks in many public situations or maintain social distance could be issued a citation. 

Marin County
TIER: Red (substantial)

Marin County was sent back to the red tier on Nov. 16 and is the only Bay Area county to remain at that level.

Indoor restaurants and gyms were told to close again on Nov. 17 as the county confronts rising case numbers. The new rules also said that movie theaters must stop operating concession stands.

As officials began to emphasize the importance of face coverings in the fight against the virus, Marin County in July stipulated that face masks must be worn while inside a public space or waiting to enter a public space. 

The county has permitted smaller gatherings with guidelines for "social bubbles."

Napa County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

Napa County took two steps back to the purple tier on November 16 from the orange tier. The county had been at the orange level since October 21, which allowed for increased capacity for indoor dining, religious services, bars, movie theaters.

Since mid-July, people in Napa County who go in public without covering their face may be fined $25 to $500. The penalties could also be imposed on people who hold public gatherings. Businesses also face penalties for failing to enforce facial covering requirements and other rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus. 

San Francisco County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

Purple tier restrictions hit San Francisco on November 28. That came days after the city told certain businesses to obey tighter restrictions. Bars and indoor dining must remain closed. The reopening of high schools is on pause. These changes were initiated by city officials rather than at the state level.

San Francisco was the first Bay Area county to advance to the yellow tier, which allowed for the reopening of non-essential offices and increased capacity limits at fitness centers, churches, and restaurants. But the city plummeted rapidly and by late November was under a curfew that applies to all counties in the purple tier.

Health officials gave restaurants the OK to begin outdoor dining services on Friday, June 12. In addition, businesses were invited to apply for the city’s Shared Spaces Program to use sidewalks, parking lanes, streets, or other nearby public spaces like parks and plazas for restaurant pick-up and outdoor dining. 

San Mateo County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

San Mateo county landed in the Purple tier on November 28 as counties across the state faced tighter restrictions due to the fall surge in coronavirus cases. 

County supervisors voted on August 4 to impose fines on businesses and people that violate COIVD-19 rules, such as wearing face coverings in public. 

Santa Clara County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

On November 28, Santa Clara County announced a new set of restrictions amid a surge in cases and hospitalizations. The changes incude a stipulation that residents traveling 150 miles or more from the county should quarantine when they return and banned contact sports. This affects the San Francisco 49ers, who have three home games remaining in the season. The team will play two games in Arizona.

Santa Clara County was one of many counties that moved to the purple tier on November 16 as COVID cases had risen rapidly. 

Before being caught in the state's rollback, Santa Clara had tightened up by disallowing indoor dining. That change was set for November 17.

Face mask requirements have been stepped up in Santa Clara County. A mask or other covering must be worn when inside or waiting to enter a business, during face-to-face interactions and when people who do not live together cannot maintain social distancing. 

Solano County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

Solano County fell into the purple tier on November 16, about a month after county officials first warned Solano could sonn revert to the lowest tier due to a worrisome trend of increasing COVID cases. 

Sonoma County
TIER: Purple (widespread)

Sonoma has been stuck in the state's purple tier for months. It's the only county in the region that hasn't climbed up from the lowest level. At this level, bars and breweries are closed. Churches may open for outdoor services. Restaurants, too, can open for al fresco service.