As the state’s coronavirus deaths pass the 3,500 mark, California gives a green light to 40 counties to speed up reopening. And, thousands of pastors say it’s not fast enough for their churches. Plus: “Full House” mom agrees to plead guilty.

It’s Ventura County Star reporter Cheri Carlson writing under sunny skies in Agoura Hills and filling in for the brilliant Arlene Martinez.

But first, for those dreaming of wandering under Yosemite’s giant sequoias or feeling the spray of its cascading falls, a reopening might be right around the corner for the national park. Before you jump in your car, pull out your laptop because even day-trippers may need reservations.

Most counties to speed up reopening; business owners have questions

Nine weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to stay home, more than two-thirds of the state’s counties have gotten the go-ahead to speed up reopening. By Thursday morning, 40 of 58 counties were cleared to reopen in-store retail and restaurant dining with restrictions.

Ventura County got its OK late Wednesday. Hours later, business owners readied to open their doors. But some said they faced a lot of unknowns, including how their businesses would fare under the new normal.

In a perfect world, Ventura restaurant owner Aaron Duncan would like things to return to the way before COVID-19 struck. But he also realizes the important thing is protecting people’s health.

“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s better than being closed.”

Not included in the flurry of re-openings: churches. The governor’s plan allowed churches to reopen in a later phase. More than 1,000 pastors say they will hold in-person services May 31 with or without the state’s blessing.

L.A. gets a bit of good news; elsewhere, a state prison reports outbreak

Battered by the coronavirus, Los Angeles County may see a break ahead. The mega-county’s transmission rate has dropped to its best rate since the COVID-19 crisis began.

In Kings County, 26 inmates and four state employees tested positive for coronavirus this week at Avenal State Prison.

Meanwhile, Shasta County has gone four days without any new coronavirus cases.

Baby-stepping out of the house; a holiday traffic mystery

When you hit the road this Memorial Day weekend, you may be in for a surprise. Or, not. The holiday drive usually snarls traffic and clogs freeways, but no one really knows what will happen during the pandemic.

Traffic may be light with more people sticking close to home or more drivers may climb behind the wheel as some counties begin to reopen.

If you head out, experts say having a few yards of space from other people still matters. So does the size of the room and how long you stick around. Here are three things to consider before you leave home.

What else we’re talking about

After months of maintaining their innocence, actress Lori Loughlin, of “Full House” fame, and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy charges in the University of Southern California admissions scandal.

The couple were accused last year of paying $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters accepted into USC as fake crew recruits. Now, they’re facing prison time and fines.

Need a break but plan to stay home? The Desert Sun pulled together some of its best reads of legends, lore and history of the California desert to keep you company.

Movie buffs have options, too, from a virtual film festival to some streaming favorites.

The heart and brain aren’t always on the same page

It’s hard to follow your dreams and heart. Sometimes, as Garth Brooks so well sang in “Unanswered Prayers,” it’s a good thing when plans fall through.

But other times, even through pain, misery, being broke, having your family turn their back, it winds up to be the very best thing. And you can’t imagine a different path.

The Storytellers Project, a series of live events whose in-person season is canceled/on hold, has put together playlists of stories that celebrate life in all its phases and stages. On Thursdays, I’m sharing lists here.

Our final week’s playlist shows us the power of following your heart.

The only decision

Liz Warren’s grandmother offers to pay for her to attend any graduate school of her choosing, so long as she leaves her new live-in boyfriend, Mark Goldstein. Liz turns down the offer, and over the years she and Mark grow close through life and hardships. And later, she and her grandmother reconcile.

Persistence pays off

Stacy Sullivan was working as an editor in a tiny Southern town when he met the love of his life … who was at the party with his fiancee. Stacy asks Eddy to lunch anyway and eventually the two start dating. Sparks are not immediate. Some time apart and an unexpected adventure involving a bale of hay serves to bring them together — 30 years now and going.

The perfect place

Daniel Ray, his parents and two younger brothers accidentally discover an especially beautiful camping site when they take their new/old RV out deep in the Western Cascade Mountains. They awake the next morning and realize they’re parked above the cloud level and together admire the breathtaking beauty. He tries over the years to find it again, and even plans to return with his younger brother, then fighting an opiod addiction. When his brother succumbs to the addiction, Daniel and his family know they must take the ashes there.

Miracle of all miracles

Jason Bonder loses his faith in Judaism after a college friend was badly injured in a car crash. He questions the miracle of Hanukkah and asks why God couldn’t help his friend. Then he began studying religion in college. But only, he told himself, so he could tell people what Judaism is really about, not just stories about so-called miracles. He went on to theology school and became a rabbi. Later and unexpectedly, he experiences the miracle of Hanukkah.

There is a thing as too much risk

Michael Chow has photographed dangerous, war-torn places, including the aftermath of the war in Kosovo. He visits families and heads to a national park. As he walks into a meadow, a hand urgently grabs Mike from behind just as he was about to step on a landmine. He went from being a risk-taking photographer to realizing that he had a wife and a child at home, and he had to be more careful. Not every photo is worth every risk.

Reclaiming history

A healer and chef, Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz keeps alive the traditions of the Indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert, talks about the humiliation of her teacher making her a “Native” outfit for the Thanksgiving play — manilla paper and a pillowcase — and how she didn’t feel proud. Years later it is her own daughter’s turn to participate in “Colonial Days.” It winds up being a grand celebration, celebrated by everyone except the Native children who abstained from participating in it. She finds a way to reclaim the event.

That’s it for me. I’m off to read about the private homes among the Joshua trees in one of my favorite desert parks. Stay safe!

In California is a roundup of news from across USA TODAY Network newsrooms. Also contributing: Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee.

Cheri Carlson

USA Today