California officials announced Friday that the state has reached a key vaccination milestone that will allow eligible counties to take another step in a gradual reopening process following a year of pandemic restrictions.
The state is notifying counties that a key target has been met -- 2 million vaccine doses have reached residents in California’s most disadvantaged ZIP codes. Meeting that goal was required to enable a move for eligible counties into the red tier of the state's four-tier reopening plan.
The announcement means LA, Orange and San Bernardino counties are all expected to move from the most restrictive purple tier into the state’s less restrictive red tier in the coming days. The changes will take effect on Sunday, according to state health officials.
Los Angeles County said it will permit a wide range of indoor operations to resume Monday, including middle and high schools, restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and museums, zoos and aquariums, all with health safeguards in place.
About half the state’s 58 counties have now moved out of the most stringent restrictions, allowing limited indoor dining and the reopening of movie theaters and gyms.
Statewide, 13 counties will move to a less restrictive tier, from purple (widespread) to red (substantial): Amador, Colusa, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Mendocino, Mono, Orange, Placer, San Benito, San Bernardino, Siskiyou, Sonoma and Tuolumne, the state's health department said Friday. Twenty-one counties will remain in the purple tier, but more counties -- including Riverside, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Diego counties -- are likely to move up next week, according to the health department.
Officials throughout California are contemplating what things will look like in the nation’s most populous state once millions of people are vaccinated and they move to phase out restrictions on gatherings and businesses that have altered life for a year.
When officials last summer designed the four-tiered, yellow-to-purple system California now uses to decide whether people can dine indoors, go to the movies or gather with friends, they did not include a green tier — a recognition that a return to normalcy after the pandemic was far off. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is preparing to add one.
“The likelihood of hitting that green tier is probably sooner than some of us thought when we were looking at the summer and fall,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary, said Thursday.
State officials rely on a complicated formula, including virus spread, to determine which activities are restricted in each county.
But a green designation won’t mean “go” for all things. Ghaly said such a label would still mean wearing masks and staying physically distant. He declined in an interview to offer more specifics on what restrictions would be maintained or to provide a threshold of vaccinations the state hopes to meet to allow such a go-ahead.
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Earlier Thursday, state Public Health Director Dr. Tomas Aragón forecast that California could achieve herd immunity when about 75% of the population has been vaccinated, though that could change as the virus mutates.
That officials are optimistic enough to publicly discuss a green tier puts California in a dramatically different place than it was a few weeks ago during the state’s worst surge. Now case rates, hospitalizations and deaths are on the decline and vaccinations are on the rise.
On Thursday, Ghaly and other officials, including Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the surgeon general, received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine publicly at sites in Los Angeles and Oakland to promote its safety and efficacy. The one-short J&J vaccine recently received emergency use approval from the federal government.
California’s supply of the single-shot vaccine is limited for now, but officials are eager to build confidence in it, particularly in Black and Latino communities. The state recently said counties can open faster once more people in vulnerable neighborhoods are vaccinated.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines both require two shots, while J&J only requires one dose. Although public health officials say it provides strong immunity, some people have been hesitant, worrying that it is not as protective as the others.
Under the new reopening plan, counties can more easily move from the most restrictive purple tier to the lower red tier when 2 million vaccine doses have reached residents in California’s most disadvantaged ZIP codes. Once 4 million doses are administered in those neighborhoods, it will be easier to move to orange.
When officials established the system in August, Newsom said it was too soon to look ahead to a green tier that would signal “go back to the way things were.” The Democratic governor said Wednesday that officials have been working on a green tier for months “in anticipation of this bright light at the end of this tunnel.”
Also on Thursday, the state announced new rules for bars and breweries, which have largely been closed if they don’t serve food. Starting Saturday, breweries and distilleries that don’t serve food can open outside in the purple and red tiers. The state guidance says patrons at both, as well as wineries, must have reservations and limit their stay to 90 minutes and that service must end by 8 p.m. Bars that don’t serve food can’t open until the orange tier.
The state has reason to be cautiously optimistic, said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. But she worries the state’s plan to speed up reopening is “too aggressive.”
An estimated 4.4 million people with certain significant, high-risk medical conditions or disabilities will be eligible for the vaccine Monday. They will not be required to provide documentation but will be asked to sign a self-attestation that they meet the criteria, the state’s public health department announced Thursday.
People who work in or reside in congregant places, such as detention centers, jails and homeless shelters, will also be newly eligible, as will public transit workers and airport workers for commercial airlines, the state also announced.
That added eligibility could create logjams if supply remains limited, Bibbins-Domingo said. At the same time, California must focus on vaccinating disadvantaged neighborhoods to reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks, she said.
“I worry that the real forward, hard-driving look to go to opening with thresholds that are a little bit easier to meet, frankly, is going to not quite play itself out the way that we’d all like,” she said.