SACRAMENTO, Calif. – This April should look very different than the last for California’s nearly 40 million residents, with a new plan from the governor that will speed up reopening a year after he imposed the nation’s first statewide coronavirus shutdown.
Next month, nearly the entire state could see a return of inside restaurant dining, the reopening of movie theaters and other indoor businesses, far more children back in classrooms and competing in sports — maybe even fans in the stands for Opening Day of Major League Baseball.
“It’s important that we start getting back to work and recovery,” said Emilie Cameron, district affairs and development director at the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents businesses in California's capital city.
Sacramento County has been stuck in the state's most restrictive reopening tier, keeping restaurants, gyms and museums closed for indoor service alongside other business restrictions. California uses a four-tiered color-coded system to dictate how businesses and schools must operate; purple is the most restrictive, yellow the least.
The quicker pace of reopening is tied to a new plan to vaccinate California's most vulnerable residents. Once 2 million people across 400 ZIP codes in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods receive at least one vaccine dose, it will be easier for counties to exit the state's most restrictive tier.
That threshold could be reached within two weeks. Once 4 million people in those neighborhoods are vaccinated, counties will be able to open up even more.
It all puts California in a drastically different position than a year ago, when Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed the statewide stay-at-home order that restricted travel, shuttered businesses and forced millions of people onto unemployment. California still has among the most severe restrictions of any state and continues to discourage out-of-state visitors.
Even as Newsom outlined the new policies Thursday, he struck a more cautious than optimistic tone, urging Californians to start wearing two masks.
“We can’t reopen our economy until we get this pandemic safely behind us,” the Democratic governor said from a vaccination site in Stockton.
Still, California's coronavirus situation has improved with dizzying speed. The rate of people testing positive for the infection has fallen to 2.1% in the last week, the lowest level of the pandemic.
Hospitalizations that topped out at nearly 22,000 in early January are down to 4,500 now and projected to fall below 500 statewide by early April, according to state models. Similarly, models predict just 125 ICU patients in a month's time.
The models show deaths, which lag other indicators, continuing to flatten, but still another 4,800 people are projected to lose their lives by month’s end. More than 53,000 people have already died, the largest total in the country.
By focusing 40% of the state's vaccine supply on the most vulnerable neighborhoods, state officials are hoping to further limit hospitalizations and deaths and allow the state to slowly move back toward a less restricted economy.
The new metrics will make it easier for major Southern California counties like Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego to loosen restrictions. San Francisco and several other Bay Area counties already are in the less restrictive “red tier" where some businesses can reopen for indoor services.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, called Newsom's move smart and said the state had little justification in the first place to restrict outdoor activities.
In December, Newsom imposed a new stay-at-home order that shuttered even outdoor dining for several weeks in the midst of the state's worst surge, and he only approved the resumption of most outdoor youth and recreational sports last month.
“We have to open the economy — the collateral damage from lockdowns is staggering," Gandhi said. “You can argue that California never should have restricted anything outside during these times when they were closing down parks and grounds and all that.”
Newsom has paid a political price for his handling of the virus. His popularity has fallen recently and a recall effort is nearing the mark needed to give voters a chance to fire him later this year.
In the past, Newsom has faced criticism for failing to tell lawmakers and business groups about his reopening and closure plans before announcing them. But this time he moved quickly to show widespread backing for the latest changes, sharing supportive statements from the California Medical Association, California Restaurant Association, California State Association of Counties and the legislative Latino and Black caucuses, among other groups.
Francesca Schuler, an advisory board member at the California Fitness Alliance, said fitness clubs and gym owners are “enthusiastic" about the possibility of a quicker move to the red tier that will allow them to have 10% capacity inside.
California has been the most restrictive state on fitness centers, she said, forcing many to close and limiting exercise options for the public.
“It’s a great thing to open up safely," she said. “Our frustration is that it helps but it doesn’t solve the problem that public health basically is saying that exercise indoors is not essential and 49 other states have used science and data to modify their point of view."
Meanwhile, travel and tourism groups criticized Newsom for failing to issue guidelines on business events and conventions, which bring in significant revenue.
“Every day I’m on the phone with someone trying to convince them to not cancel and take their business to another state,” Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in a statement. “We need the governor to provide guidelines to signal to our customers that California will one day be open to hosting events. We want the jobs and revenue here in California, not other states.”
This story has been corrected with the proper spelling of Emilie Cameron's last name. It is Cameron, not Clarke.