California is aiming to fully reopen its economy June 15 — the clearest end date eyed for restrictions that have besieged businesses and upended daily life throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The date isn’t set in stone. And officials emphasize that getting to the point where California can widely reopen for the first time in more than a year will hinge on two factors: a sufficient vaccine supply to inoculate all those who are eligible and stable and low numbers of people hospitalized with the disease.
June 15 also won’t bring a full return to pre-pandemic life. Notably, California’s mask mandate will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
But officials expressed confidence that the state, through continued improvement in its coronavirus metrics and the steady rollout of vaccines, is now positioned to begin actively planning for what comes after COVID-19.
“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,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement Tuesday. “We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic. 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.”
Should all go as planned, June 15 will see the official end of California’s current reopening roadmap, which sorts counties into one of four color-coded tiers based on three metrics: coronavirus case rates, adjusted based on the number of tests performed; the rate of positive test results; and a health-equity metric intended to ensure that the positive test rate in poorer communities is not significantly higher than the county’s overall figure.
“The entire state will move into this phase as a whole. This will not be county-by-county,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said in a briefing call with reporters.
In a statement, officials said those sectors included in the state’s reopening blueprint will be allowed to “return to usual operations in compliance with Cal/OSHA requirements and with common-sense public health policies in place, such as required masking, testing and with vaccinations encouraged. Large-scale indoor events, such as conventions, will be allowed to occur with testing or vaccination verification requirements.”
Ghaly emphasized that, “if we see any concerning rise in our hospitalizations, we will take the necessary precautions. But right now, we are hopeful in what we’re seeing as we continue to build on the 20 million vaccines already administered.”
A successful statewide reopening in June poses a major political upside for the governor, who faces a likely recall election in the fall.
Newsom’s chances of surviving a recall could be higher if Californians have resumed some form of pre-COVID-19 life when they cast their ballots. Mass vaccinations and the return of in-person education are critical to that sense of normalcy.
Newsom was the first governor in the nation to issue a stay-at-home order in the early days of the pandemic last year, an action widely cast as the right call to protect California’s fragile healthcare system.
The governor hasn’t received the same praise for his handling of reopenings.
Health experts have said Newsom lifted restrictions too quickly and didn’t reinstate them fast enough when case numbers grew, adding to COVID-19 surges in the summer and winter. Health and Human Services Secretary Ghaly, one of the state’s top health officials, has said he would have slowed the pace of change last summer if he could do it all again.
Rescinding restrictions and launching a sweeping reopening create news risks for Newsom. If the virus surges again or unexpected problems arise, the whiplash of the governor’s constantly changing rules could be fresher in the minds of voters, who may blame him at the polls.
Political experts say the more Californians think of the pandemic in the past tense, the more likely Newsom is to keep his seat.
The announcement of the targeted reopening date came the same day that California hit its goal of administering 4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in its most vulnerable communities — a milestone not only in the ongoing struggle to more equitably give out the precious shots, but in the push to further reopen the state’s economy even ahead of June 15.
Hitting the target means the state will redraft the reopening roadmap to implement new criteria that will allow counties to more quickly relax some of the restrictions on businesses and public spaces.
The changes will, in effect, apply an orange coat to the Golden State.
The tiers outlined in California’s current reopening strategy go from purple, in which coronavirus transmission is considered widespread, and indoor operations are severely limited or suspended across a wide array of business sectors; to red, with fewer restrictions; to orange, with even fewer; and finally, yellow, in which most businesses can open indoors with modifications.
Before Tuesday, counties had to record fewer than 4.0 new cases per day per 100,000 people to move into the orange tier. With the 4-million dose target now achieved, the requirement has been loosened to under 6.0.
Moving into the orange tier has significant economic implications.
Counties can allow bars to reopen outdoors with some modifications, and bars also are no longer required to serve food.
Amusement parks can reopen at up to 25% capacity, and fan attendance is allowed at 33% capacity for outdoor sports and live performances.
Capacity restrictions can also be lifted in stores, although social distancing and other safety modifications still apply; houses of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums can raise their indoor capacity to 50% from 25%; restaurants and movie theaters can raise indoor capacity to 50% capacity or 200 people from 25% or 100 people (whichever is fewer); and indoor gyms and yoga studios can increase capacity to 25% from 10%.
Bowling alleys can reopen with modifications at 25% capacity. Card rooms and satellite wagering sites can also reopen indoors at 25% capacity.
Offices in nonessential industries can reopen, though the state says workers should still be encouraged to work remotely.
The state-set goal of administering first 2 million, then 4 million doses in targeted communities — namely, those in the lowest quartile of a socioeconomic measurement tool called the California Healthy Places Index — was only one aspect of a wider effort aimed at ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
California has for the last month earmarked 40% of its COVID-19 vaccine supply for residents in those disadvantaged areas, an allocation state officials said would not only help address inequities in the inoculation rollout, but make sure the shots are available to those most at risk from the pandemic.
To date, providers throughout California have doled out 20.3 million total COVID-19 vaccine doses, and 34.2% of residents have received at least one shot, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Roughly 18.1% of Californians are fully vaccinated at this point, meaning they’ve either received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both required doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.
Nationwide, 32.4% of Americans have received at least one dose and 18.8% are fully vaccinated, CDC data show.
During the early phases of the vaccine rollout, California restricted access to the shots to those considered at highest risk of coronavirus infection, either because of their age, occupation or underlying health conditions.
That will change starting April 15, when anyone age 16 and over will be able to book appointments.
The state had widened vaccine eligibility last week to include everyone 50 and older.
President Biden had initially said states should make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccines by May 1. But he is expected to announce a more aggressive timeline Tuesday — setting a new deadline of April 19.