Updated at 5:57 p.m.
California could fully reopen starting June 15 if vaccine supply increases and COVID-19 hospitalizations remain low, state officials announced Tuesday.
The move would end the state's tiered reopening system and mark a shift to fully-occupied schools, stadiums and businesses. Though some restrictions like mask-wearing indoors are here to stay “for the foreseeable future,” said California’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly.
The June 15 reopening date depends on adequate vaccine supply for every Californian 16 and older who wants it, and hospitalizations from COVID-19 remaining stable enough that health systems do not need to defer other care or appointments.
Administration officials made the announcement the same day California administered its 20 millionth vaccine dose and met a key equity goal by doling out 4 million doses in hard-hit, lower-income communities. California health officials announced last month they would dedicate 40% of all COVID-19 vaccine doses to the communities hit hardest by the pandemic in an effort to address inequality in the state's rollout.
“With more than 20 million vaccines administered across the state, it is time to turn the page on our tier system and begin looking to fully reopen California’s economy. We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “We will need to remain vigilant, and continue the practices that got us here — wearing masks and getting vaccinated — but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter.”
Officials say the June 15 reopening date is subject to change if obstacles in vaccine delivery, virus variants, or increasing hospitalizations arise. They announced the date about 10 weeks in advance to give businesses time to plan and Californians time to schedule vaccine appointments. Every Californian 16 and older will be eligible to get the shot April 15.
Ghaly said the state has not determined hard numbers to decide whether or not to move forward.
“We don’t have a specific number, per se, on hospitalizations, but we are looking at impacts on hospital capacity and the delivery system’s ability to continue to deliver routine care,” he said.
Health Experts Optimistic
Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at University of California, San Francisco, called the announcement “terrific.”
“I think that the state has been exceptionally prudent and skillful in managing these utterly uncharted waters,” he said, crediting Ghaly and other state health officials. “It's not quite time for a victory lap, but at least we have an end in sight.”
Asked about how coronavirus variants could complicate the state’s reopening strategy, Rutherford said for now, things look good.
“What we're looking for is for people who've been vaccinated, who show up in hospitals, and that's what the vaccines are meant to prevent,” he said. “They seem to prevent that really well across the board, including for these variants.”
Dr. Bob Wachter, also of UCSF, shared the optimism about the announcement and California’s current trends.
“I think it says that we are in a really good place in California and I think it's likely that we're going to be in an even better place over the summer,” said Wachter, who chairs UCSF’s department of Medicine.
Though Wachter warned a lot could change over the next two months, which he called “a lifetime in COVID world.”
“What could go bad is people could let their guard down,” he said. “People could hear an announcement like this and say, ‘Yippee, it's over, I can go back to normal.’ And particularly if they're not fully vaccinated, that could land us in hot soup pretty quickly.”
After more than a year of on-and-off closures and various other restrictions, business groups also cheered the announcement.
“Small-business owners need predictability and dependability from their governments to make a range of decisions,” said Sunder Ramani, president of Westwind Sound, a Burbank-based audio production company and chairman of the National Federation of Independent Businesses California Leadership Council.
“This reopening certainty will help afford those Main Street businesses affected the most an opportunity to recover and move forward. The governor’s establishment of a complete reopening date now gives them something solid to make plans with,” he said.
Republicans quickly tied Newsom’s rosy announcement to an effort to recall him from office, which gained momentum over the winter as cases and pandemic restrictions increased. The effort is likely to qualify for a special recall election later this year.
“It is amazing what a recall can do to eradicate a pandemic,” said Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) said in a written statement. “For months, the Governor has ignored science and data. If the Governor’s predictions hold true, and the ‘recall reopening’ actually happens, this is great news for our students, families, and business community.”
While Case Numbers Improve, Vaccine Rollout Still Rocky
California has continued to increase its pace for vaccinations and is now administering more than 374,000 doses a day across the state. While some counties have expanded eligibility faster than the state, others say they don't have enough supply to keep up with demand.
Overall, 18.1% of Californians are fully vaccinated, below the national rate of 18.8%.
Despite those efforts, only 3% of all vaccines administered have gone to Black Californians, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard, despite making up 6.5% of the state’s population. And about 20% of the shots have been given to Latinx residents — despite that group making up nearly 40% of the population.
New cases have stayed steady over the past two weeks at around 2,700 per day. But that comes after weeks of declining case numbers following this winter's surge, where more than 40,000 new COVID-19 cases were identified in the state each day.
Hospitalized patients with COVID-19 continue to decline, down to around 2,005 statewide. Overall, 59,348 Californians have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic
But many areas of the United States are starting to see an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, according to an NPR analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
California's Path To Reopening
Over the past month, California has sped up reopening as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen from highs over the winter. The state has allowed stadiums and theme parks to reopen, loosened case rate thresholds to let counties move more quickly through the state's tiered reopening system, and just last week made it possible to hold some indoor events and live performances.
California issued its first statewide stay-at-home order more than one year ago on March 19, 2020. But even before then, businesses such as restaurants, theme parks and sports venues had begun to shut down.
The Sacramento Kings played their last game before fans March 11, and Disneyland shut its doors March 14. Newsom encouraged restaurants to shift to takeout-only March 16.
Since then California has moved back and forth, through phases and tiers, loosening and tightening restrictions.
After the initial stay-at-home order, health officials began easing restrictions in May, including allowing bars, gyms and movie theaters to start reopening in June. Many health experts now say the state reopened too soon in the summer. As cases rose, in August California health officials introduced the color-coded tiered reopening system which is still in place today.
Then as hospitalizations and deaths began to climb in winter, California introduced a regional stay-at-home order tied to intensive care unit capacity throughout the state. State health officials lifted those orders Jan. 25, despite some regions remaining below the 15% ICU capacity threshold set as the cutoff to trigger the restrictions.
The shifting — and often unclear — requirements have led to criticism, lawsuits and outright defiance from residents and businesses affected by the closures, at times chipping away at the state's restrictions.
In February, the Supreme Court ruled against the state, saying it couldn't continue a ban on indoor church services. A state appeals court upheld a Los Angeles County ban on outdoor dining in March, though the ban is no longer in effect. Last month the state also settled a lawsuit brought by high school athletes that will allow sports to resume statewide. Meanwhile, businesses from San Diego to Placer counties have continued to file new lawsuits against the stay-at-home order.
In the Legislature, Republican Assemblymembers James Gallagher and Kevin Kiley have introduced a resolution calling for the end of Newsom's emergency powers, and sued the state to end statewide COVID-19 restrictions.
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