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With Vaccines Expanding, California Looks Ahead to the End of COVID Restrictions

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Holiday beachgoers head to Venice Beach on Memorial Day on May 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. | David McNew/Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Announcing a pending return to normalcy, California health officials said today all state COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, gatherings and recreational activities will be lifted June 15, subject to vaccine availability and low hospitalization rates, although a mask mandate will remain in place.

Assuming continued availability of vaccines and no spikes in COVID-19 hospitalizations — particularly among people who have been vaccinated — the state on June 15 will do away with its Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the four-tier, color-coded system that has guided economic reopening through a series of restrictions and capacity limits.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the June 15 date was chosen for being two months after COVID-19 vaccines are made available to all Californians aged 16 and over. And the decision to lift all the blueprint requirements comes in response to rising vaccination numbers and continued decreases in all key pandemic-tracking metrics, such as case numbers, positivity rates and hospitalizations.

"With all of that, we are at the stage where we're ready to consider the next aspect of our pandemic response" Ghaly said. "The road to this moment hasn't been easy. We have come together as Californians to save thousands of lives. And now we look at what is beyond that Blueprint for a Safer Economy that has been guiding California's slow, public-health-minded transition and opening of our economy. ... We look to get to that end of the blueprint."

Ghaly said scrapping the blueprint — which will be done statewide, regardless of where individual counties may be ranked at the time in the tier system – "really means that every day activities will be allowed, and businesses can open with common-sense risk-reduction measures."

"This means the end to our color-coded tiers," he said. "You can go to movies, to the beach and see family."

Ghaly stressed, however, that a statewide mask mandate will remain in place "to prevent illness and promote health."

He noted that the June 15 date could possibly be adjusted if the state begins over the next two months to experience rises in hospitalization numbers or a sudden lack of vaccine supply. He urged all residents to ensure the move occurs on time by continuing to practice infection-control measures.

"We want to emphasize that we continue to focus over these now 10 weeks from today, a period where we continue to push out vaccinations and continue to focus on those personal protective measures, those mitigating measures — wearing our masks in settings, especially indoors, when we're in crowds," Ghaly said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed that sentiment, saying residents cannot get careless in the coming weeks about taking precautions — particularly in the face of increasing COVID variants that can be more infectious and could potentially be more resistant to vaccines.

"This is really a race, these vaccines, against the variants, against the mutations," Newsom said. "And that's why, again, ... 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 — the lowest case rates, positivity rates. ... We are seeing the bright light at the end of the tunnel, and on June 15, all things being equal — continue that good work — we'll have moved beyond the blueprint and we'll be opening up this economy and business as usual."

The governor said that when the blueprint is scrapped, he expects schools, community colleges and universities across the state to return to in-person instruction. Although he stopped short of saying they would be required to do so.

"There will be no barrier to having our kids back for in-person instruction," he said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis hailed the announcement as an acknowledgment of improving conditions and increasing vaccine supply.

"For over a year now, we've asked residents and businesses to sacrifice, remain patient and significantly alter their lives to keep one another healthy," Solis said. "For many, this was particularly challenging, especially given the lack of a defined end date to this pandemic. But now for the first time we have a target date to look forward to when we can begin transitioning back to our new normal.

"This is incredibly relieving and joyful news, especially here in Los Angeles County, where so many communities have been hit hard by this pandemic," she said.

The announcement came on a day the state crossed the 20 million threshold for the number of vaccinations administered overall. The state also reached the 4 million mark of vaccinations in lower-income communities that have been hard hit by the pandemic. Reaching that 4 million threshold will allow more than a dozen counties to move to a less restrictive tier in the economic blueprint. San Diego and Riverside counties will both be able to advance out of the red tier and into the less-restrictive orange tier.

"We will only keep moving toward this June 15 date, not only by emphasizing vaccines, but also by emphasizing the ongoing work of Californians," Ghaly said. "This really continues to be on our shoulders to make the responsible decision to keep our masks on, to avoid crowds and other settings where we still might encounter COVID. But as we move toward that date on June 15, we look forward to this two-month period not just to keep our focus on vaccines, but to give our partners in communities, in businesses and other sectors a chance to prepare to be ready for this post-blueprint era in California."

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