California Reopens After Being First to Shut in Pandemic

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
June 15, 2021 Updated: June 15, 2021

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

The nation’s most populated state lifted most of its restrictions Tuesday, meaning no more state rules on social distancing or capacity limits at restaurants, bars, supermarkets, gyms, stadiums, or anywhere else.

And masks are no longer mandated for vaccinated people in most settings, though businesses and counties can still require them.

Gov. Gavin Newsom celebrated the milestone by hosting a lottery-style selection of 10 winners who will get $1.5 million each simply for being vaccinated. It was the finale to the nation’s largest vaccine incentive—$116 million in COVID-19 lottery jackpots and cash card giveaways.

“Finally we are here, June 15th, to turn the page,” Newsom declared from a stage at Universal Studios Hollywood during festivities to mark what he called the “full reopening” of the state’s economy.

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks during a news conference at Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif., on June 15, 2021. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo)

The Democratic governor pointed to the more than 40 million doses of vaccine administered and the resulting plunge in cases as the reason for the reopening.

“Foundationally, that’s why we’re here today,” Newsom said.

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

Fans can cheer maskless at Dodgers and Giants baseball games. Disneyland is opening to all tourists after allowing just California residents since April. People can pack indoor bars and nightclubs from the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles to the Castro in San Francisco.

Virus Outbreak California Reopening
Fans sit 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. Calif., on May 21, 2021. (D. Ross Cameron/AP Photo)

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.

As the first in the country to impose a statewide lockdown 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, California hurtled toward a deadly winter surge. Shutdowns, curfews, and overwhelmed hospitals became the norm as the state set records almost daily for infections and deaths.

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 percent. The drop in infections combined with an increasing number of vaccinated residents—over 70 percent of adults have had at least one dose—led Newsom to announce in April that most COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted June 15.

California Reopening
People crowd the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 29, 2021. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

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 “megaevents.” People attending indoor concerts, sporting events, or other large gatherings of more than 5,000 people will have to show proof that they are vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID-19 test. Those going to outdoor events with more than 10,000 people are “strongly encouraged” to do the same.

While fully vaccinated people will no longer be required to wear masks in most places, those who are unvaccinated are expected to, but it won’t be enforced. Businesses have three choices: operate on an honor system, require customers to show proof of vaccination, or require everyone to cover their face.

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

California Reopening
An open banner hangs outside the Tadich Grill, California’s oldest restaurant, in San Francisco, Calif., on June 4, 2021. (Eric Risberg/AP Photo)

While applauding the reopening, some business owners said ever-shifting mask rules are confounding.

“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 percent capacity.

“That will be nice to fill the place up. However, we are still confused about the mask mandate,” La Torre said.

It’s also unclear if people will come.

By Jocelyn Gecker and Stefanie Dazio

The Associated Press
The Associated Press