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California’s June 15 Reopening Will Scrap Social Distancing and Capacity Requirements

Come mid-June, life in California may start to look a whole lot more like pre-pandemic normal again.

In just over three weeks, the state will scrap its social distancing requirements and allow businesses to operate at full capacity, California’s top health official announced Friday.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health director, said the dramatic statewide decline in COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations, and the increase in vaccinations, is a solid indicator that it will be safe to remove nearly all restrictions by June 15, when the state plans to “fully reopen.”

“Something very important happens on June 15 in California. We are now at a point, given our metrics that we’ve been watching, that California is at a place where we can begin to talk about moving beyond the blueprint,” Ghaly said, referring to the state’s color-coded, four-tier system that has restricted activities based on each county’s virus prevalence.

“The big message today is we’re at a place with this pandemic when those requirements of the past are no longer needed for the foreseeable future,” Ghaly said. Limits on how many people can be inside businesses at any one time, “which have been a hallmark” of the safety plan, will disappear, he said. “Physical distancing: There will no longer be restrictions for customers in business sectors.”

California’s workforce regulators are separately developing safety rules that will continue to apply to employers, Ghaly added.

But all of this won’t mean an abrupt end to wearing masks. As the state announced Monday, on June 15 California will align its masking guidance to correspond to recently updated national guidelines that say it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to shed their masks in most situations, with the exception of crowded indoor locations such as airplanes, buses, hospitals and congregate living facilities.

The state will still recommend that organizers of outdoor events with more than 10,000 people have systems in place for attendees to verify their vaccination status or show a negative test — and encourage those without verification to wear masks. But, Ghaly stressed, “This again, is not a requirement, it is a recommendation.”

But for large indoor events with more than 5,000 people, he said, stricter guidelines will remain in place for the foreseeable future. “We are requiring, not recommending the vaccine verification [or] negative test. And there will not be an option to come in if you’re neither of those,” he said.

Ghaly also made clear that the state has no plans to create or require a vaccination “passport” or other formal system of verification. Health officials, he said, will instead advise businesses and other organizations that require verification to do so “in a way that doesn’t discriminate.”

Visitors enter Disneyland on the day of the park’s re-opening on April 30, 2021, in Anaheim. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 15, California also plans to adopt the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s looser guidelines on traveling domestically and overseas, Ghaly said.

That means lifting all travel restrictions unless there are certain countries experiencing outbreaks where travel is explicitly discouraged, he said. It also means lifting all voluntary quarantines when people return to California from other states.

California was the first state to issue a statewide shutdown as the virus emerged in March 2020. And at the beginning of 2021, it was the nation’s epicenter for the disease. Nearly 63,000 people have died from the virus in California, the most in any state in the nation.

For more than a month, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials have floated June 15 as the date when they expect to lift most coronavirus-related requirements, assuming cases remain low and vaccine availability abundant.

“We’ve gotten to that place,” Ghaly said, pointing to the state’s markedly low rates of cases and hospitalizations — a dramatic departure from where things stood just five months ago.

In recent days, newly reported cases statewide have fallen below 1,000, he said – and there are currently just over 1,300 people in hospitals with the virus.

Ghaly also touted California’s vaccination progress, which got off to a rocky start earlier this year, but has since picked up considerable speed. Anyone who wants a vaccine, should now able to easily get one, he said.

“Vaccines are widely available and we’re proud of where we are — really among the leading states in the nation with not just the number of doses, but the percentage of our population who has gotten one dose.”

The state of 40 million people has to date administered nearly 35.5 million vaccine doses, and more than three-quarters of residents over age 65 — generally considered the most vulnerable population — have received at least one dose, Ghaly said. More than 40% of the entire state has been fully vaccinated, with rates beginning to grow among children as young as 12.

But, he said, “we still have work to do” in increasing vaccination rates among communities that have been hard-hit by the pandemic, acknowledging that millions of eligible residents in the state have yet to sign up for appointments.

“Today’s announcement, I hope, for individuals who are considering to get vaccinated, just maybe down on the road, today gives them a chance to say this is the right time. Let me get vaccinated.”

Ghaly also acknowledged that California’s plan carries some definite risks, noting that 10 counties are still in the state’s red reopening tier, indicating “substantial” risk. He emphasized that after mid-June, local jurisdictions can still choose to implement guidelines stricter than those dictated by the state if deemed necessary.

“Those who have decided not to be vaccinated may remain vulnerable to transmission and to some of the concerning outcomes. And we’re going to be watching that very closely,” he said. “But I think we are in a place statewide where we have a significant number of people vaccinated and protected.”

The story includes additional reporting from the Associated Press.

Copyright 2021 KQED