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Most pandemic restrictions lift in Kern

Kern took a big step toward pre-pandemic normality Tuesday with the start of an honor system allowing fully vaccinated people to forgo masks and social distancing at restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and grocery stores, even as employees will still be required to abide by California's COVID-19 restrictions pending a decision later this week by a state safety board.

County health officials, citing state guidance, announced most places of business may return to regular operation but not "mega events" attended by more than 5,000 people or sensitive settings such as public transit, health-care sites, childcare businesses, local and state detention facilities, homeless centers and schools from kindergarten through high school.

"Together we have navigated many challenges during this pandemic and now are able to get back to a sense of normalcy that we have longed for,” the county's public health director, Brynn Carrigan, said in a news release. “I want to thank our community for all their efforts help to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ask that we all continue to practice healthy habits moving forward.” The release added that the county will continue to monitor local COVID-19 metrics.

Despite what some called California's "grand reopening" after 15 months of on-again, off-again pandemic restrictions, the reality on the ground was more nuanced as people including the fully vaccinated continued to wear protection and businesses were permitted to decide for themselves whether to require customers wear masks.

At the Albertsons on Coffee Road, many shoppers wore a face mask, though some did not and no one was asking for proof of vaccinations. All the grocery store's indoor employees appeared to be masked and one was busy sanitizing surfaces.

Shopper Edie Lyons, fully vaccinated at age 89, wore a mask out of courtesy for the store's employees, she said. Having gone to a restaurant last week for the first time since March 2020, she wasn't sure how long she would continue to wear a mask, saying, "It depends. We'll see what happens."

Another fully vaccinated customer, northwest Bakersfield resident Christina Bottoms, did her shopping without a mask Tuesday for the first time in more than a year.

"It's exciting. I've been wearing it out of compliance and respect for the rules," Bottoms said. She added that she entered the store without her mask because rules allow it, "not because (Tuesday) is different from yesterday."

The restrictions were lifted a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom said California is "poised to come roaring back." More than 70 percent of the state's adults have had at least one vaccination shot. The state's infection rate is now among the lowest in the country.

But the restrictions that came to be associated with Newsom's administration proved deeply unpopular with many business owners, especially restaurants and salon owners that suffered financially during the pandemic. The governor faces a recall election largely rooted in pandemic-related health protocols critics saw as government overreach.

A fuller relaxation of pandemic restrictions remains limited by workplace rules that still require mask-wearing and social distancing. How soon those requirements are lifted may depend on a vote Thursday by the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

A proposal before the board would end not only mask-wearing and social distancing requirements for fully vaccinated workers but also the need for partitions between work spaces. Employees who are not fully vaccinated would have to keep wearing masks indoors and in enclosed vehicles but not when they're eating or drinking alone in a room. Their employers would have to outfit them with N95-type masks.

The new rules that took effect Tuesday allow businesses to insist their customers wear masks and socially distance. But Dr. Nick Hansa, owner of Chef's Choice Noodle Bar in Bakersfield, said he has no such intentions.

"We're not going to require masks, no," he said. But until the Cal-OSHA board says it's OK, the restaurant will continue making its employees don a mask.

"We feel compelled to continue to ask our employees at this time to wear a mask until we get further clarification," he said. "If they change the policy, honestly, we will follow the policy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.