California, the first state in the U.S. 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 – one of the most fraught symbols of the pandemic – 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 grand 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.
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 fully reopened 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.
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 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, 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 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%. 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 on June 15.
The reopening does not 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 visited last week from Las Vegas, so many things that were once normal 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 LA's historic Olvera Street, a restored Mexican marketplace once clogged with tourists. “But it’s great to be among people.”
The reopening does not 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 will not 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.
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 people to keep masks on indoors and in crowds.
For now, masks are still required in places like public transit, airports, health care settings and indoor school classes.
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% capacity.
“That will be nice to fill the place up. However, we are still confused about the mask mandate,” La Torre said.
It is also unclear if people will come.
For Rita Torres, a retired university administrator in Oakland, the last 15 months were “mindboggling.” She has missed dancing at live concerts and hugging her girlfriends at weekly happy hours. But for her, the reopening is just another day.
“Deep down, I want to rejoice,” Torres said, but she’s going to take it slow. “Because it’s kind of like, is it too soon? Will we be sorry?”