With COVID tamed, it’s a ‘grand reopening’ in California

Associated Press
In this May 21 file photo, fans sit shoulder to shoulder in a vaccinated section of the stands during the fourth inning of a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in San Francisco. (AP Photo / D. Ross Cameron)

SAN FRANCISCO — California, the first state in America to put in place a coronavirus lockdown, is now turning a page on the pandemic.

At the stroke of midnight, California lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions and ushered in what has been billed as the state’s “Grand Reopening.”

Starting Tuesday, there were no more state rules on social distancing, and no more limits on capacity at restaurants, bars, supermarkets, gyms, stadiums or anywhere else.

And masks — one of the most symbolic and fraught symbols of the pandemic — will no longer be mandated for vaccinated people in most settings, though businesses and counties can still require them.

Just in time for summer, California wants to send the message that life in the Golden State is getting much closer to normal. The economy is fully reopen for the first time in 15 months and people can largely return to pre-pandemic lifestyles.

Fans can cheer mask-less at Dodgers and Giants baseball games. Disneyland is throwing its doors open to all tourists after allowing just California residents since it opened in April. People can pack indoor bars and nightclubs from the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles to the Castro in San Francisco.

“With all due respect, eat your heart out, the rest of the United States. There is no state in America that has more,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on the eve of the reopening. “The state is not just poised to recover, it’s poised to come roaring back.”

To mark the reopening, Newsom will make a few lucky residents millionaires. In a made-for-TV main event, the governor will draw 10 names of residents who have received at least one vaccine dose and award each one $1.5 million.

The drawing is the grand finale to the nation’s largest vaccine incentive, $116 million in COVID-19 lottery jackpots and cash card giveaways. Winners can collect the money once they’re fully vaccinated.

Tourism was among the hardest hit industries during the pandemic and now wants to make up for lost time.

“In terms of our incredible cities, our iconic attractions, the industry is ready to roll out the red carpet to visitors in California, around the nation and even the world,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California.

Pandemic highs and lows saw California go from being a success story to the U.S. epicenter of the virus. As the first in the country to impose a statewide shutdown in March 2020, California’s businesses were just starting to reopen last June when cases started rising and restrictions were imposed again.

By summer’s end, a darker reality set in as California hurtled toward a deadly winter surge. Shutdowns, curfews and harrowing images from overwhelmed hospitals became the norm as the state set new records almost daily for infection rates and staggering death tolls.

More people tested positive for the virus in California (3.8 million and counting) and more people died (63,000 plus) than anywhere else in the country, although the nation’s most populous state had a lower per capita death rate than most others.

California now has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country, below 1%. That dramatic drop in infections combined with an increasing number of vaccinated residents — over 70% of adults have had at least one dose — led Newsom to announce in April that most COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted June 15.

The reopening doesn’t necessarily mean people will immediately flock to places and events they once packed, or that businesses will opt to return to full capacity immediately. But a palpable feeling of anticipation has replaced the anxiety, frustration and sadness that ushered in summer 2020.

For Angie Barragan, who was born in Los Angeles and returned for a visit last week from her home in Las Vegas, so many once-normal things feel new, awkward and amazing: strolling in public without a mask, socializing for the first time in ages.

“It’s kind of learning how to be a human again,” she said as she shopped and strolled on the city’s historic Olvera Street, a restored Mexican marketplace once clogged with tourists. “But it’s great to be among people.”

The reopening doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, Newsom has repeatedly stressed as an explanation for retaining his statewide emergency declaration.

Some public health measures will stay for “mega events.” People attending indoor concerts, sporting events or other large gatherings for more than 5,000 people will have to show proof that they are vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID-19 test. Attendees at outdoor events with more than 10,000 people are “strongly encouraged” to do the same.

Fully vaccinated people will no longer be required to wear masks, including indoors, in most places. Those who are unvaccinated are expected to wear masks, but that won’t be enforced. Businesses have three choices: operate on an honor system; require customers to show proof of vaccination, or they can still require everyone to wear a mask.

Many question if the honor system will work, including the California Nurses Association, which said the new rules essentially call on businesses and essential workers to be the vaccination police.

“This is not a sound public health strategy,” said Sandy Rending, a president of the association, which is calling on residents to keep their masks on indoors and in crowds.

For now, masks will still be required in places like public transit, airports, health care and indoor school classes.

Some business owners have complained that ever-shifting mask rules are confounding, while heartily applauding the reopening.

“We’re excited — and a little confused,” said Tom La Torre, owner of Sabella & La Torre Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, a tourist haven that transformed into a ghost town during the pandemic.

Until now, his restaurant was limited to 50% capacity. “That will be nice to fill the place up. However, we are still confused about the mask mandate.”

It’s also unclear if people will come.

For Rita Torres, a retired university administrator in Oakland, the last 15 months were “mind boggling.” She has missed dancing at live concerts and hugging her girlfriends at weekly happy hour outings. She’s embraced having groceries delivered, a practice she once considered frivolous. Tuesday’s reopening is, for her, just another day. She will venture out cautiously.

“Deep down I want to rejoice,” she said, but she’s going to take it slow. “Because it’s kind of like, is it too soon? Will we be sorry?”


— The Orange County Health Care Agency reports California’s apparent first case of COVID-19, a man who had traveled to Wuhan, China.


— The Feb. 6 death of a a San Jose woman is the first known U.S. death from COVID-19.

— A California resident becomes the first confirmed non-travel related case, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

— A Solano County woman becomes the first U.S. case involving community transmission, meaning she didn’t have any known contact through travel or with a known infected person.


— The number of confirmed cases in California continues to increase. By month’s end, it will pass 7,000. As the caseload rises, Gov. Gavin Newsom declares a state of emergency. Several counties also declare local emergencies. On March 19, Newsom issues the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order, closing all nonessential businesses and restaurant dining. He writes President Trump to say that 25.5 million Californians could be infected within two months. While cases rose dramatically, they never come close to that level.


— California’s death toll from the virus tops 1,000 and climbs throughout the month. Confirmed cases are around 40,000.


— The state has seen more than 50,000 infections but new cases and weekly death tolls fall for the first time. Newsom praises Californians for helping slow the infection rate. Following a decline in hospitalizations, Newsom announces new criteria allowing larger counties to reopen more of their economies if they have the virus adequately in check. Within a month nearly every county in the state is approved to reopen large segments of their economies.


— Virus cases and hospitalizations rise across the state, leading Newsom to issue a mask order and renew some social distancing restrictions as infections spike. COVID-19 cases are now reported in every county in the state. In late July, California has a record daily total of cases, topping 400,000 and overtaking New York for the most cases in the country. More than 7,000 deaths have been recorded.


— Newsom says California is showing improvement in its fight against the virus, citing a lower number of confirmed new cases and a sharp dip in the hospitalization rate. Even so, by the end of the month California has the most confirmed virus cases in the nation at more than 700,000.


— Infection rates fall to their lowest level of the pandemic and by late in the month hospitalizations have dropped to a level not seen since the first week of April. The state is closing in on 800,000 confirmed cases and more than 15,000 deaths. But the declines prompt officials to loosen restrictions in many counties, allowing more businesses to reopen.


— California has been seeing several thousand new cases a day but by mid-month the number of deaths and hospitalizations drops. Some counties get state permission to ease restrictions. However, infections and hospitalizations begin to inch up again by the end of the month, with the deadly winter surge to come.


— Newsom attends a birthday dinner at the exclusive French Laundry with lobbyists. Photos show there are more people than recommended by state guidelines, sitting close together and without masks. Health officials plead with the public to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday as hospitalizations rise. The governor orders almost all nonessential businesses to close. The state hits 1 million infections and more than 18,000 dead.


— The crisis prompts Newsom to create a conditional stay-at-home order for different regions of the state based on ICU bed capacity. Vaccine shipments start arriving as hospitalizations and deaths rise. Hospitals treat patients in makeshift tents, auditoriums, anywhere they can find space. California hits a record 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases on Christmas Eve as nearly the entire state is under a strict stay-at-home order.


— The new year starts on a grim note with funeral homes running out of space and 8,000 people in hard-hit Los Angeles County hospitalized. California hits 3 million cases and reports a one-day record of 764 COVID-19 recorded deaths, but the rate of new infections starts to fall. Newsom lifts the regional stay-at-home home orders.

— Newsom expands vaccine eligibility to the general public, starting with people 75 and older, and taps insurer Blue Shield to operate a new statewide vaccine delivery system.


— California surpasses 50,000 dead and the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens its first joint mass vaccination sites in LA and Oakland. San Francisco sues its own school board to reopen classrooms as the governor pushes to get kids back in school. In the U.S., a half-million people have died from the coronavirus.


— New case rates continue to plummet but vaccine supply remains extremely tight. It’s clear residents are violating self-certified eligibility rules to get their shot at a confusing array of sites, including mass vaccination centers, pop-up clinics catering to the poor and pharmacies. Newsom announces that 40% of vaccine doses will go California’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. Disneyland announces it will open in April.


— California reports the lowest average COVID-19 cases per capita in the country. Major League Baseball welcomes a limited number of fans back to outdoor stadiums. The governor announces that indoor concerts and sporting events will reopen with limited capacity April 15, the same day everyone 16 and older becomes eligible for vaccination. Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco begin welcoming students back into classes after more than a year of distance learning. The state sets a statewide reopening date of June 15.


— With continuing record-low cases, the governor aligns with CDC guidelines saying that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks outdoors unless in crowds. But he declines to adopt federal guidelines allowing fully vaccinated people to go mask-free in most indoor settings.

— State officials confirm on May 21 that they will drop social distancing and nearly all other restrictions when the state reopens June 15. More than 62,000 people are dead from the virus.

— With millions still unvaccinated, California announces it will give away the country’s largest pot of vaccine prize money — $116.5 million in lottery jackpots and cash cards — to tempt more people into getting shots before the state fully opens.


— Most of California’s population is now living under the least restrictive COVID-19 guidelines. Out of 58 counties, all but three are in the lowest two of the state’s four color-coded tiers.

— On June 15, California fully reopened its economy. The color-coded tiers are dropped. Restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, and most other places can open without capacity limits or social distancing requirements. Fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear a mask in most places, although the unvaccinated must still mask up in public settings.

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