Samuel Dissels cleans a table at Oyo restaurant's newly built outdoor dining area in Pleasanton on Dec. 3, 2020. Public health officials announced Jan. 25, 2021, that the stay-at-home order has been lifted and counties will return to the color-coded tiered system, allowing for businesses to begin reopening. (Photo by Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group, via CalMatters)

California lawmakers, businesses and residents are racing to adapt their coronavirus reopening plans after top state officials on Monday moved to ease shutdown orders in place since early December for the state’s largest cities.

Outdoor restaurant service, haircuts and open-air workouts could soon resume — again — across California after state health officials announced an end to stay-at-home orders in an early morning press release Monday. The state will return to the same color-coded county reopening system unveiled by Gov. Gavin Newsom over the summer. But it’s not yet clear how the change in state policy will play out in virus hot spots like Los Angeles, since local health officials are still free to enact stricter orders.

Even some state lawmakers were caught off guard by the sudden change of course, highlighting how the pandemic has strained communication both within government and with the public. Adding to the tension are nagging questions about the credibility of Newsom and other state officials who themselves have been caught skirting pandemic restrictions.

California Sen. Lena Gonzalez, was one of several legislators to post online about the “surprising” new order and call for clarity about impacts on essential workers and communities of color hit harder by the virus. Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale, posted on Twitter late Monday morning that, “If you think state legislators were blindsided by, and confused about, the shifting and confusing public health directives, you’d be correct.”

The California Republican Party quickly seized on the confusion to highlight a recall campaign against Newsom and nagging questions about how, exactly, the state is deciding when and how to reopen different sectors of the economy. “It’s time for the Wizard of California to come out from behind the curtain and let Californians see the data and science behind his decisions,” the party said in a statement.

In a midday press conference, Newsom said the decision to lift stay-at-home orders was driven by declining hospitalization rates and increasing ICU capacity. While cautioning that the state is “not out of the woods,” he emphasized that California’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests has also dropped and projected optimism on reopening more businesses in the coming weeks.

“We’ll be moving, we hope, quickly through tiers,” Newsom said.

The move back to county-by-county reopening decisions — which comes amid a sluggish start to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination effort — marks the latest abrupt shift in California’s handling of the pandemic, which state officals framed as good news.

“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a statement, “which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for.”

As hospitalizations spike and recede, many businesses and residents have questioned how and why certain activities are restricted, leading to protests over masks and personal liberties, lawsuits and other backlash over issues like outdoor dining and school reopenings. Though the number of Californians hospitalized remains higher than at any point of the pandemic before late December, state officials said that they were encouraged by projections that ICUs will soon have increased capacity above 15% in Southern California, the Bay Area and the Central Valley.

“The December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared,” Ghaly said in a statement, despite stark recent reports of overflowing morgues and exhausted medical personnel in hard-hit areas.

With the shift back to color-coded reopening guidelines, all but four counties will shift to the most restrictive purple tier, which allows for outdoor dining and some personal care businesses. Trinity, Alpine and Mariposa counties are in the red tier permitting small indoor gatherings and higher capacity at indoor businesses. Sierra County is in the orange tier, which signifies “moderate” spread of the virus and allows bars to reopen.

During the ups and downs of the pandemic, officials in left-leaning urban centers like San Francisco have at times opted to enact stricter local measures than the state required. More than 10 months into the public health crisis, with concern about small business closures and unemployment hitting new highs, the question is which locales may opt to clamp down longer now in a bid to stave off another wave in the coming months.

For those interpreting the state’s ever-evolving approach to the pandemic on the fly, it’s now a race against time to navigate familiar reopening questions while ramping up sputtering local vaccine distribution efforts.

“The lifting of the regional stay at home order shows signs of progress that can continue if we avoid letting our guard down,” Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, said in a statement. “Together we can move the needle on COVID-19, rebuild our economy and begin to resume our near-normal lives.” is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.