As the pace of vaccination picks up, California state officials on Tuesday announced the date they plan to fully reopen the state’s economy: June 15.
Reopening by then will largely depend on two criteria: Vaccine supply must be sufficient for anyone 16 and older who wants a shot and hospitalization rates must remain low and stable. The mask mandate would remain in place, however.
“It is incumbent upon all of us not to announce mission accomplished, not to put down our guard, but to continue that vigilance that got us where we are today,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday from San Francisco.
The move would eliminate the complex web of county-by-county tiers and replace it with a statewide reopening of businesses.
Businesses would open up to full capacity, although individual counties can still opt to have more restrictions depending on their circumstances. Schools would be encouraged to reopen to full-time in-person learning; however, the school districts will maintain control.
“I want kids back in school safely, and on June 15 we anticipate there will be no barriers to getting kids back in person, not just K-12 … (also) including institutions of higher education,” Newsom said.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health secretary, said he feels comfortable allowing businesses to operate at full capacity in mid-June because the state will continue to track local conditions.
“What we could see is fully occupied settings, but still with masks,” Ghaly said Tuesday.
According to the state plan, businesses can return to normal operations, except for masking requirements and “testing or vaccination verification requirements for large-scale higher-risk events.” Until at least Oct. 1, large conventions with more than 5,000 people will only be allowed if organizers can show that attendees are either vaccinated or are tested. There is still no plan for large, multiday events like music festivals to take place, Ghaly said.
As of Monday, the state had administered more than 20 million vaccines — more than entire countries. That includes 4 million doses in the state’s hardest-hit, disadvantaged communities. This progress allows the state to move forward, and leave behind its colored blueprint that has been determining reopenings by county.
State officials chose the June 15 date because it is eight weeks after April 15, when everyone 16 and older becomes eligible for vaccinations. That gives people three weeks to find an appointment, another three weeks in between their first and second dose and two more weeks after their second dose, which allows them to acquire full protection.
“It makes sense to me,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco. “On the one hand, vaccination is going gangbusters, I think that will give us the out, but we also have to see what happens with the variants, and if people who are vaccinated are getting infected.”
Infections are skyrocketing in some other parts of the country, with some of the outbreaks linked to new variants of the virus. But California has been able to keep its positivity rate under 2% for several weeks now.
“What we’re asking is for people to hunker down for another two months and when we get there, then it’s Miller time,” Rutherford said.
‘It’s not a moment for a free-for-all’
Because most children age 15 and younger may not be vaccinated by June 15, “we need to be cautiously optimistic. It’s not a moment for a free-for-all,” said Dr. Ilan Shapiro, a pediatrician and medical director of health education and wellness for the AltaMed community health system in Southern California.
Shapiro said vaccinated parents may not want to take their unvaccinated kids to an inside event with many people even if masks are required. But he supports school reopenings, noting that kids benefit from in-class education and social interaction with the necessary precautions.
“We all want the best protection for our kids. We want to make sure that they are safe. Part of that defense is having the social distancing at school, washing hands and using masks,” Shapiro said. “Even though they’re repetitive, those three things have made a huge difference (in preventing COVID-19 transmission) even before there was a vaccine.”
Under the state plan, “schools and institutions of higher education should conduct full-time, in person instruction, in compliance with Cal/OSHA emergency temporary standards and public health guidelines.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said Tuesday that he is heartened by new testing that indicates that the vaccines are effective in adolescents. But he added, “We must prepare for the possibility that there will be some families who cannot or may choose not to send their students back to school campuses this fall, and schools may need the flexibility to offer some form of remote learning.”
Nearly all of California currently is in the orange and red tiers, which allowed businesses to reopen with limited capacity. Only Merced and Inyo counties remain in the most-restricted purple tier after failing Tuesday to meet the health metrics required to move to red.
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