What to Know About California’s Reopening, Again

Good morning.

On Monday, California officials lifted the state’s regional stay-at-home order, clearing the way for outdoor dining to reopen, for barbers to start inviting customers back into their chairs and for residents to visit their loved ones — as long as they stay outside, of course — in places where those activities have been banned.

It was an abrupt reversal by state public health officials, who said as recently as Sunday that their projections for intensive care unit capacity in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California meant they were ineligible to exit the order. The move caught both allies and critics of the governor off guard, prompting accusations that the decision was driven by politics over science.

Hospitals continue to be stretched, and new cases continue to be much higher than their previous summer peak.

Still, officials emphasized that now, things are different.

[Read the full story about the move to lift restrictions.]

“Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and frontline medical workers were stretched to their limits,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of health and human services, said in a statement on Monday. “But Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible, and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared.”

If you’re like me, all the rule changes have left you with a little bit of whiplash and maybe some déjà vu.

Here are the answers to some questions you may have:

Now that you mention it, this does feel a little familiar. Why is that?

That’s probably because this is the third time California has imposed strict lockdowns on most or all of its residents — and then effectively let counties reopen at different rates.

First, the state slowly lifted restrictions on a county-by-county basis in late spring and early summer. (Remember the “monitoring list?”) In July, amid surging cases — although, I should note, they were nowhere close to what we’re seeing now — Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled them back.

Then, in August, Mr. Newsom unveiled the state’s color-coded, tiered reopening framework, which was meant to be clearer and more transparent than the previous one, although restrictions still varied by county.

[Track coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations across California.]

But as cases started to rise ahead of the holidays, Mr. Newsom announced a new stay-at-home order that would go into effect once a region’s intensive care unit capacity dipped below a 15 percent threshold. Eventually nearly all of the state’s population was living under the order, which banned any gatherings and shuttered outdoor dining.

Which brings us up to now, with the state’s move on Monday to lift the strict order.

What’s next?

We return to the color-coded tiers of restriction, tied to the prevalence of the virus in a given county rather than intensive care unit capacity.

All but four counties are still in the most restrictive purple tier, which permits restaurants, wineries, movie theaters and gyms to operate outdoors and allows hotels and personal care service businesses to reopen with strict caps on occupancy.

Counties can still opt to keep stricter rules in place, as Los Angeles County has done in the past, as it grapples with a particularly deadly and encompassing surge.

[See how full hospital intensive care units are near you.]

This time, though, county officials said Los Angeles would have rules aligned with the state’s, meaning that by this weekend, lots of businesses that had been completely shuttered or restaurants that were open for takeout only can reopen.

In the Bay Area, where hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed as they have been in much of Southern California, local officials also gave businesses the green light to reopen.

What did the governor have to say about all this?

Hours after state public health officials announced the lifting of the stay-at-home orders, Mr. Newsom defended the decision, saying that the state’s models showed pressure on intensive care units lifting significantly in the next month.

By Feb. 21, the state reported, intensive care unit capacity is projected to reach 30.3 percent across California, with 33.3 percent of intensive care unit space available in Southern California, 22.3 percent in the San Joaquin Valley and 25 percent in the Bay Area.

And state officials, Mr. Newsom said, rushed to lift restrictions as quickly as possible once the numbers indicated it would be safe to do so.

“We did a lot of comprehensive outreach and we’re pleased to move in this direction,” he said in a news conference on Monday.

He described accusations that he was making pandemic response decisions based on political considerations as “complete, utter nonsense.”

Still, he highlighted that California’s overall positivity rate recently compared favorably with those of Texas and Arizona. And he emphasized that reporting delays — which state officials were working to fix — had contributed to what he described as misconceptions about the slow relative speed of California’s vaccine rollout.

“We’re just getting going,” Mr. Newsom said. California, he said, is like a ship: “It takes a little time to shift course, but when it shifts course, it builds tremendous momentum.”

[See how the vaccine rollout is going in California and other states.]

Did we get more of a vaccine update?

Yes, the governor also laid out the state’s evolving vaccine prioritization framework: Along with health care workers and anyone 65 and older, the state will prioritize emergency medical workers, food and agricultural workers, and teachers and school staff members.

After that, he said, the state will “transition to age-based eligibility,” and will focus on getting vaccines to disproportionately impacted communities.

But the problem, experts have said over and over in recent weeks, is that — like the state’s reopening system — the implementation of such detailed plans rests on county public health departments, and the details have differed community by community.

He said the state was still getting vaccine providers up to speed on using Myturn.ca.gov, the state’s pilot site for letting people know when, well, it’s their turn.

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If you missed it, President Biden is moving to extend a federal eviction moratorium. [The New York Times]

  • California may have lost as much as $30 billion to unemployment insurance fraud. That’s even more than initially estimated, when a task force of district attorneys described it as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.” [The New York Times]

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have asked the Biden administration to start a task force to help states combat such fraud.

  • Some residents of the North Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains were ordered to flee potential debris flow as rains hit fire-scarred areas. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]

  • Tuesday is the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s shocking death. A year later, a former competitor, Zach Randolph, and his daughter MacKenley, whom Bryant coached on his Team Mamba, are grappling with the loss. [The New York Times]

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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