California’s virus reopening met with cheers and caution

National

People pose for pictures on a cable car at the Hyde Street cable car turnaround in San Francisco on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. The mayor announced Tuesday that the famed cable cars would be running again in August after being halted at the start of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Olga Rodriguez)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Cable car bells clanged, Minions danced and restaurant patrons sipped their drinks indoors on a scorching day as California fully reopened its economy after 15 months of coronavirus restrictions.

From the wine country to Disneyland, restaurants and other businesses threw open their doors wide on Tuesday and many allowed fully vaccinated customers to throw away their masks as the state ended its color-coded COVID-19 restriction tiers amid a plunge in infections and rising vaccination rates.

“California has turned the page. Let us all celebrate this remarkable milestone,” an exuberant and mask-less Gov. Gavin Newsom declared from an outdoor stage at Universal Studios Hollywood, where he hosted a game show-style selection of 10 residents to receive $1.5 million apiece, just for getting vaccinated. “Today is a day to reconnect with strangers, loved ones, family members. Give people hugs.”

Life-sized Minions, Avengers and other movie mascots danced and cheered during festivities.

California was the first state in the country to order a coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 and is among the last to fully reopen after battling a fall and winter COVID-19 surge that saw hundreds dying every day.

Newsom pointed to the more than 40 million doses of vaccine administered — to more than 70% of the state’s adults — and the resulting plunge in cases as the reason for the reopening. California currently has one of the nation’s lowest infection rates, below 1%.

The state ended rules on physical distancing or capacity limits at restaurants, bars, supermarkets, gyms, museums, amusement parks, stadiums or anywhere else.

Masks are no longer mandated for vaccinated people in most settings, though businesses and counties can still require them and other restrictions. Many businesses said they would rely on the honor system when it comes to determining whether patrons are vaccinated.

The reopening was met with exuberance — especially on a day when many areas of the state saw sweltering outdoor temperatures and indoor air conditioning beckoned. But it also prompted caution from people well aware that millions still haven’t had their shots and the coronavirus is anything but eradicated.

More people tested positive for the virus in California (3.8 million and counting) and more people died (63,000 plus) than anywhere else in the country during the pandemic, although the nation’s most populous state had a lower per capita death rate than most others.

In Los Angeles, a moment of silence was observed to honor those who died during the pandemic and county health director Barbara Ferrer said the unvaccinated “need to stay very careful” and wear masks in public areas.

Many museums still required masks, especially since there is, as yet, no federally approved vaccine for young children.

Poonam Rai kept a yellow surgical mask on after leaving a downtown Sacramento coffee shop on Tuesday and said she’ll keep wearing it for now. She works in health care and wants to protect people who are unvaccinated.

“As of today I’m still doing the same things as I was yesterday,” she said.

In Sacramento, Midtown Fitness & Boxing dropped its mask mandate Tuesday, but the few patrons inside still held their masks or wore them around their chins.

“I’m just taking tippy toes,” said Judy Bratman, 65, who was visiting from Los Angeles, as she watched her adult daughter train in a boxing ring.

Still, it was a day of hope for businesses that were hard-hit by restrictions.

Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers had a night game against the Phillies, dropped its capacity limits and looked forward to replacing cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats with the flesh-and-blood variety. The Dodgers got their wish, reporting a sell-out crowd of more than 52,000 for the game and boasting that it was the largest turnout for a professional sports league game in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

“I think we’re all excited to fill up the stadium and get that energy going back in this place,” LA third baseman Justin Turner said before the game. “It’s something we feed off of.”

Disneyland welcomed back out-of-state visitors for the first time since it closed in March 2020. It was shut down for months until opening this spring to California residents only. The famed park is also dropping many of its other restrictions, such as temperature checks and face coverings for vaccinated guests.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that the city’s landmark cable cars, which were halted at the start of the pandemic, will start running again in August and rides will be free all month.

The city’s COVID-19 case rate is 17% lower than the state’s and the rate of infections has plummeted.

“We are in this place because the people of this city came together like never before to make this a reality,” Breed said. “We got through this. We helped to save lives, and we should be so proud of the work we did.”

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Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers John Antczak, Chris Weber and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles, Amy Taxin in Orange County, Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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