SF Chron: California confirms state will reopen June 15 – no more social distancing, capacity limits

Bartender Ramon Piñon, left, mixes a drink for John Lister at Sea Star Bar, which reopened for business for several days in San Francisco on May 9 with capacity limits. The state will allow bars and other businesses to lift all restrictions June 15.
Bartender Ramon Piñon, left, mixes a drink for John Lister at Sea Star Bar, which reopened for business for several days in San Francisco on May 9 with capacity limits. The state will allow bars and other businesses to lift all restrictions June 15. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle, by Erin Allday, May 21, 2021

California will definitely reopen on June 15 and almost all public health restrictions will be lifted, state officials said Friday, releasing the first highly anticipated details of what post-pandemic life will look like.

Overnight, the state will do away with all capacity limits and other social distancing requirements for businesses and other activities. Gatherings of all sizes will be allowed. And everything from buffet service to open bars will be able to resume in public spaces and private events.

A handful of restrictions will remain in place — most notably some masking rules, primarily for people who aren’t yet vaccinated. Counties may also maintain some local restrictions. But for the most part, Californians will be able to pick up where they left off last March, when the first orders shutting down large gatherings were issued.

“We have been for weeks forecasting that something very important happens on June 15 in California,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California Health and Human Services, in a news briefing Friday. “The big message today is we’re at a place with this pandemic where the requirements of the past are no longer needed for the foreseeable future.”

Friday’s announcement was the first confirmation from the state that the June 15 reopening date is a sure thing. The state will retire its color-coded public health blueprint, instituted last August, which ordered varying levels of restrictions based on how much virus was spreading in a county.

Ditching the blueprint and lifting almost all public health restrictions was dependent on the state improving access to vaccines for all residents and keeping COVID-19 hospitalizations low, and California is easily meeting both of those metrics, Ghaly said. Daily cases and deaths are at or near record lows statewide; last week, the Bay Area reported four COVID-19 deaths a day on average, the lowest in the region since the first fatalities last March.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the planned reopening date in April, but since then details about what would actually happen were spare. County and business leaders increasingly had said they were having a hard time planning for that date without better understanding of what health restrictions might remain in place.

It turns out, almost none of them.

Masks are one exception. Face coverings will still be required for unvaccinated people, and for everyone in certain situations including in health care settings and on public transit. But the bulk of the mask mandate will lift on June 15 along with everything else.

The other notable restriction is for so-called mega indoor events — gatherings of more than 5,000 people, which would include Warriors games and large concerts. Organizers will be required to confirm that attendees are vaccinated or have a negative coronavirus test. Organizers of outdoor events with more than 10,000 people will be advised, but not required, to do the same.

“All limits on physical distancing, on capacity, restrictions around eating and drinking, open bars and buffets — will go away,” said Dee Myers, director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. “This will allow people holding conventions or weddings or selling out sporting events to advertise or market. Cultural events — all of those will be allowed, with certainty.”

There remains some uncertainty around workplace safety rules that are overseen by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health standards board, or Cal/OSHA. The board on Thursday delayed a vote on new rules that would end social distancing and masking requirements for vaccinated employees.

Most Bay Area counties have said they plan to align with the state reopening plan on June 15. But some county public health leaders have expressed reservations about fully reopening in just three weeks, and suggested that they may wait a little longer to allow very large gatherings, for example.

San Francisco public health officials said in a statement Friday that they were reviewing the state guidance and would say next week whether they planned to fully align with it.

San Mateo County plans to adopt the state guidance, but health officials remain wary of the potential for outbreaks among unvaccinated residents, said Dr. Curtis Chan, deputy director of public health. He said the county would encourage everyone to continue wearing masks in many indoor public spaces — such as grocery and retail stores — through the summer so that more people have a chance to be fully vaccinated. The county won’t make it a requirement, though.

“The June 15 date works for many individuals, particularly those who have been vaccinated. From a broader public health and a broader community perspective, we have concerns about people who have faced barriers to getting vaccinated,” Chan said. “Every couple weeks makes a big difference. So June 15 may almost be enough time, but for sure July 15 or Aug. 15 will be definitely enough time to get everyone vaccinated. Let’s make sure all our communities can cross that finish line and be protected.”

Ghaly acknowledged Friday that lifting restrictions would leave unvaccinated residents vulnerable to infection and “concerning outcomes.”

“We’ll be watching that very closely,” he said. “It’s not that we won’t see some isolated outbreaks, but we do have the tools to be able to manage that, to be able to keep those outbreaks to a minimum and keep any spread (of disease) pretty contained.”

Ghaly said he hoped that with the opening date now confirmed, and just three and a half weeks away, people who have been hesitating to get vaccinated consider getting shots right away. County public health officials similarly have said that they are redoubling efforts over the next month to increase vaccine uptake in communities that have lagged behind state averages.

State officials also confirmed Friday that they do not plan to issue or require vaccine passports, though they acknowledged that some businesses and event organizers may use them. The state will offer guidelines for how to implement vaccine passports in a way that protects people’s privacy and ensures equity, Ghaly said.

Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have plummeted in California as large portions of the population have been vaccinated. As of Friday, 48% of eligible residents — those 12 and older — were fully vaccinated, and 13.5% had received at least one shot of the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccine courses.

About 1,300 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — the fewest patients statewide since last March, when California began tracking that data.

“Over the past seven days we’ve had 260 new admissions. We wanted to be below 300 over a seven-day average and we’ve achieved that,” Ghaly said. “On both metrics — vaccinations and the state of COVID in our hospitals — we feel like we are tracking well toward meeting our goals on June 15.”