After more than a year in lockdown, the state of California could fully reopen its economy on June 15.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that everyday activities would be allowed to resume along with full business openings as long as vaccine supply allowed every willing person over 16 to receive a vaccination and COVID-19 hospital rates remained relatively low.
So far, 20 million vaccine doses have been distributed, and the governor said he expects an additional 10 million to be given out by the end of the month.
“We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic,” Newsom said in a news release. “We will need to remain vigilant, and continue the practices that got us here — wearing masks and getting vaccinated — but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter.”
The news was quickly followed by a weekly update from the California Department of Public Health, which revealed Kern County had met orange tier benchmarks, and could enter the lower tier by April 14 if the trend holds.
The second least restrictive tier in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the orange tier loosens restrictions on businesses, like allowing more people to gather together inside. Kern County has been in the red tier for the past two weeks. Prior to that, the county spent months in the most restrictive purple tier, which severely limits the amount of social and work activity that can take place.
Although masks will still be required in public spaces, the governor’s announcement sent a signal to Californians everywhere that the pandemic could be coming to an end.
“It’s a blessing to see that we’re going to approach more of the norm, and people can actually get to enjoy eating out,” said Mike Earhart, co-owner of Wiki’s Wine Dive and Grill. “I’m glad the governor is finally agreeing with a lot of the community in that we are looking at bright skies ahead of us.”
The restaurant industry has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Initially forced to rely on delivery and take out, the state eventually allowed restaurants to serve customers outdoors before letting a small number dine inside.
The general reopening allows all businesses to make plans for the future, something that seemed nearly impossible six months ago.
“Small-business owners need predictability and dependability from their governments to make a range of decisions from hiring to purchasing to expanding their enterprises,” Sunder Ramani, chairman of the National Federation of Independent Businesses California Leadership Council, said in a statement. “This reopening certainty will help afford those Main Street businesses affected the most an opportunity to recover and move forward. The governor’s establishment of a complete reopening date now gives them something solid to make plans with.”
Earhart described the last 12 months like a “book with a different chapter every few months.” While he thinks other states have handled the pandemic better, he’s optimistic Kern County residents will come out in force once restrictions are lifted.
“Regardless of whatever has happened we’re coming to the end of this,” he said. “I think it’s way overdue.”
Still, Kern County’s countdown to the orange tier wasn’t because COVID-19 levels have fallen. Rather, the state loosened orange tier metrics because 4 million vaccine doses have been distributed to disadvantaged areas.
Previously, the state required orange tier counties to record a daily coronavirus case rate of 1 to 3.9 new cases per 100,000 residents. Now, the criteria is 2 to 5.9 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Kern County’s case rate actually increased in the state’s weekly update, which counts the days from March 21 to 27. The week earlier, Kern recorded a case rate of 5 per 100,000 residents. In the most recent week, the case rate increased to 5.3 per 100,000 residents.
Other metrics fell slightly. The countywide positivity rate was 2.3 percent and the positivity rate in disadvantaged areas (which is counted as the health equity metric) was 3.4 percent.
"We are excited to hear the Governor’s expectation to re-open the economy by June 15," city spokesman Joe Conroy wrote in an email to The Californian. "We look forward to supporting our businesses as they return to more regular operations. We are also encouraged by our ability to offer more recreation programs, outdoor events and begin to plan indoor events within State guidelines."
He added that the city will continue to follow the guidance provided by the state and county health departments.
"We continue to encourage residents to follow that guidance as well, including wearing masks and social distancing when appropriate," he said, "and encourage everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible."
This story has been updated to include a comment from the city of Bakersfield.