The June 15 reopening date set by California Gov. Gavin Newsom will now mark another pandemic milestone: the day many Californians can go without masks in most settings.
California’s Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly on Monday told reporters the state will continue its cautious approach through the pandemic, and keep its masking mandates in place until the mid-June reopening date.
The announcement came five days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation that fully-vaccinated people can now go maskless in most settings—both indoors and outdoors.
“It’s in no way saying that the science or the direction by the CDC is wrong or there’s a challenge to it,” Ghaly said during the briefing. “It’s really just giving ourselves across the state some additional time to have it implemented with a high degree of integrity, with a continued focus on protecting the public.”
The CDC’s recommendation caught many by surprise, but several states seeing record low numbers of people contract Covid-19 have since allowed their fully-vaccinated residents to shed their masks. That includes Pennsylvania, Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota and New York.
Surprised that federal health officials would this quickly recommend fully-vaccinated people can ditch their masks, Santa Cruz County health officials at a May 13 press conference worried that the move could cause some confusion as shifting masking policies could be misinterpreted. But they said the CDC’s decision does “make sense” given the record-low number of people that have recently been diagnosed with Covid-19 and the state’s ongoing progress in getting people vaccinated.
In Santa Cruz County more than half of all residents above the age of 12 have received both shots and roughly 70% have received at least one. In addition, active Covid-19 cases have dipped below 100 for the first time in more than a year.
“We’re on this path, we’ve been on this path,” County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said at the May 13 presser. “I think vaccination provides extreme protection, and we’re doing very well in the state of California.”
On Wednesday morning, the Association of Bay Area Health Officials—a group made up of health officers from around the greater Bay Area—released a statement in support of the state’s decision to delay changes to its masking mandate until mid-June. Although nearly half of all Californians 16 and older are fully vaccinated, there are many who are “still unvaccinated, not yet fully vaccinated or not eligible to be vaccinated,” the statement read.
“This next month is critical to ensuring more of our residents can access vaccinations, and that businesses and other entities are able to prepare for implementation of the CDC’s updated masking guidance,” the statement continued.
Those who have not yet been vaccinated or are living with someone who has not received the shot, Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel warned, should continue to proceed with caution when masking orders are updated.
The vaccines being used in the U.S. have shown strong efficacy in keeping people who contract Covid-19 out of the hospital, but there have been rare instances in which a person who is vaccinated has tested positive for the disease—those so-called ‘breakthrough’ cases, health officials say, were expected.
Of course, those who have not yet received the inoculation are still at risk of serious illness. As an example, Newel said, the county went several days without a person being admitted to a local hospital with Covid-19, but that streak was broken last week. That person was unvaccinated and was in close contact with other people who had tested positive for Covid-19 and were also unvaccinated, Newel said.
Despite the county’s strong vaccination efforts, those who are unvaccinated are, for now, still “at almost the same level of risk that you’ve been all along,” Ghilarducci said.
“We’ve given many reasons why you should get vaccinated, but this is one where it’s super important,” he added. “Now you’re going to be amongst crowds that aren’t going to be wearing masks.”
Two weeks after receiving their second dose—or only dose with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine—people can “resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart,” the CDC recommends.
Though questions remain about what the June 15 “reopening” will mean, Newel said that county health officials around the state have been told that the four-tiered, color-coded “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” system will be gone, and that a “Beyond the Blueprint” system will take its place.
Then, Newel said, guidance for schools and workplaces will largely remain in place, and there will be various capacity limitations on large gatherings such as conferences.
The county moved to the yellow tier—the least-restrictive of the four—on Wednesday thanks to continuous drops in case and positivity rates. Santa Cruz County’s case rate this week was 1.4 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, and its positivity rate dropped to 0.5%—which, according to state data, is among the lowest in the state.
In the yellow tier:
- Bars may open indoors at 25% capacity, or 50% if customers show proof of a Covid-19 vaccination or negative test;
- Indoor music venues may increase to 50% capacity with proof of vaccination or negative test;
- Outdoor performance venues, including music, sporting events and theater, may increase to two-thirds capacity;
- Saunas and steam rooms may open at 50% capacity;
- Family entertainment centers (bowling alleys, arcades, etc.) may increase to 50%, or 75% with proof of vaccination or a negative test;
- Gyms may increase to 50% capacity;
- Amusement parks may increase to 35% capacity.