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VOL. 45 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 21, 2021

California to drop social distancing requirements in June

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California no longer will require social distancing and will allow full capacity for businesses when the state reopens on June 15, the state's top health official said Friday.

State health director Dr. Mark Ghaly said that dramatically lower virus cases and increasing vaccinations mean it's safe for the state to remove nearly all restrictions next month.

"Something very important happens on June 15 In California," Ghaly said. "We are now at a point, given our metrics that we've been watching, that California is at a place where we can begin to talk about moving beyond the blueprint," the state's color-coded, four-tier system that that has restricted activities based on each county's virus prevalence.

Limits on how many people can be inside businesses at any one time, "which have been a hallmark" of the safety plan, will disappear, he said. "Physical distancing, there will no longer be restrictions for attendees, customers and guests in business sectors."

That won't mean an abrupt end to wearing masks, he said, but it will mean the state will adjust its guidelines to correspond to national guidelines.

Officials already announced this week that they would wait until mid-June to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention new mask guidelines that say it's safe for fully vaccinated people to skip face coverings and social distancing in virtually all situations. The federal guidelines state that everyone should still wear masks in crowded indoor locations such as airplanes, buses, hospitals and prisons.

California's workforce regulators are separately developing safety rules that will continue to apply to employers, Ghaly said.

"We have weathered the storm and I am hopeful that this finally signals our return to normalcy," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

The more than three weeks of lead time before the changes go into effect "will provide ample time for our businesses, organizations and residents to prepare for these changes," Barger said.

The state will still recommend that organizers of outdoor events with more than 10,000 people require that attendees provide verification that they have been vaccinated or have tested negative for the coronavirus. Those who can't or don't provide the verification should be encouraged to wear masks, Ghaly said.

The state will require vaccine verification or negative test results for indoor events with more than 5,000 attendees, but Ghaly said that can be "by self-attestation" with details to come from health officials on how that process will work.

State officials do not anticipate that they will create or require a vaccination "passport" or other formal verification, he said. They will advise businesses and others that require verification to do so "in a way that doesn't discriminate."

He said California also plans to follow federal CDC guidelines on traveling domestically and overseas.

That means no more discouraging travel unless there are certain countries where visiting is not advised, and no more voluntary quarantines when people return to California.

California was the first state to issue a statewide shutdown as the virus emerged in March 2020 and at the start of 2021 it was the nation's epicenter for the disease. Nearly 63,000 people have died from the virus in California, the most in any state in the nation.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and state health officials have said for weeks they expected to generally lift most business and social restrictions by June 15. Ghaly said the state remains on track to do so just months after the worse surge abated.

The state of 40 million people has administered nearly 35.5 million vaccine doses, and more than three-quarters of residents over age 65 have received at least one dose, he said.

"Vaccines are widely available and we're proud of where we are," Ghaly said.

On some days, newly reported infection cases have fallen below 1,000 and there currently are just over 1,300 people in hospitals with the virus.

"We haven't enjoyed that level since the very early months and weeks of the pandemic," Ghaly said.

The state's plan does carry some risks, he said.

"Those who have decided not to be vaccinated may remain vulnerable to transmission and to some of the concerning outcomes. And we're going to be watching that very closely," he said. "But I think we are in a place statewide where we have a significant number of people vaccinated and protected."

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