With vaccination rates up and COVID-19 cases way down, California is poised to ditch masks and social distancing, but there are still a few rules and protections in place as we navigate a new pandemic landscape
For the last couple of months, San Diego County residents have grown accustomed to more relaxed pandemic regulations as they increasingly dine out indoors, catch the latest flick at the movie theater, ride a roller coaster and cheer on the Padres at Petco Park.
So when California fully reopens today — minus the state’s often bewildering, color-coded blueprint for daily life — the long-awaited moment is going to feel a bit anti-climactic.
To be sure, government-imposed rules aren’t disappearing entirely amid a pandemic that is not yet vanquished. Social distancing, capacity limits and broad facial covering mandates are going away, but in their place are more nuanced rules for masking in certain situations, along with a separate set of guidelines governing “mega events” that draw thousands of people.
Even as state officials this week sought to further clarify the new rules of what will soon feel like a largely pre-pandemic economy, there is bound to be confusion, especially as it relates to changes governing mask-wearing, acknowledges Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego’s public health officer.
Lori Weisberg on San Diego News Fix:
“There’s confusion already out there, particularly with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations that everyone who is vaccinated doesn’t need to wear a mask,” Wooten said. “That means people who are unvaccinated should wear a mask and that stigmatizes people so people may choose not to wear a mask because they don’t want to be singled out as not being vaccinated.
“So I don’t have any magic answers here.”
She also cautioned that the pandemic is not over yet, even though the incidence of COVID-19 cases has slowed dramatically.
In the interest of clearing up any lingering confusion about how to navigate a world now free of purple, red, orange and yellow tiers, the Union-Tribune has assembled the following guide.
What about masks?
Following the lead of the CDC’s guidelines for facial coverings, the California Department of Public Health clarified this week that those who are fully vaccinated can shed their masks under most circumstances. There are settings, though, where they’ll still be required, including on public transit (airplanes, trains, subways, taxis); at transportation hubs like airports and train stations; indoors in K-12 schools, health-care settings; correctional facilities; and in homeless shelters.
Unvaccinated individuals, however, will still be required to continue wearing facial coverings in indoor settings like stores, restaurants, theaters and family entertainment centers, although it will be left to businesses to police mask-wearing. They will have the choice of allowing people to self-attest that they’re vaccinated; implementing a system for verifying vaccination status; or requiring all patrons to wear masks.
Much less clear is the increasingly hot-button issue of masking rules for workers. In an about-face Wednesday, members of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board suggested they will move to no longer require fully vaccinated employees to wear masks while on the job, consistent with recommendations issued by federal and state health officials. The proposal will be presented at a meeting of the board June 17 and if approved, could go into effect by June 28 once it’s reviewed by the state Office of Administrative Law.
Just a week earlier, the workplace safety panel had recommended a stricter rule that would have allowed workers in a room to take off their masks only if every person inside was fully vaccinated and did not have COVID-19 symptoms. The board’s changed stance came following a backlash from a number of industry representatives who had argued that the more restrictive policy would be a burden and go against progress against the virus.
The board’s most recent actions mean that Cal/OSHA’s original November 2020 rules, which require all workers to be masked, regardless of vaccination status, will remain in place, at least temporarily.
As Californians enter a largely mask-free era, the vaccinated should feel more comfortable about being protected against the coronavirus, but there are still likely to be clashes over the wearing of facial coverings, suspects Dr. Davey Smith, UC San Diego’s chief of infectious disease research.
“If you’re vaccinated, an unvaccinated person doesn’t present a big threat to you and it’s always been that way,” Smith said. “I only worry about people getting into arguments at Starbucks about someone not wearing a mask.
We’re coming to a time where we need to have self-policing as opposed to others policing. I’ll take care of myself and not worry about others out there.”
Now that San Diego has just entered the most relaxed of the four color-coded tiers, restaurants are able to be open indoors at 50 percent capacity but starting Tuesday, there will be no limits on occupancy, nor will masks be required. Tables will not have to be placed 6 feet apart, as many are now. While restaurants and bars could adopt stiffer rules, it’s unlikely they will, given owners’ longstanding eagerness to fully reopen.
“We’re excited we’re heading back to normal and looking forward to serving more and more of our guests,” said David Cohn, co-founder of the Cohn Restaurant Group. “We’ll continue to have masks available for those who want them, as well as hand sanitizer, and we’ll continue the disinfection we’ve always done. We did put plexiglass in and we will be taking out all those dividers.”
David Spatafore, whose restaurant portfolio includes Liberty Public Market, says he will continue with upgraded sanitation and will retain the eight hand sinks strategically placed throughout the Liberty Station food hall. But the signs saying “Keep the rona away, wash your hands” will be removed as San Diego moves into a new era, he said.
“Our plan is to follow what’s being said by opening things back up and going back to normal and trust that people will wear masks if they’re not vaccinated,” said Spatafore, who acknowledged that he has a few employees who do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Like Cohn, he plans to remove the barriers between tables at his restaurants but will keep them in storage because “God knows” if there could be a return to virus-fueled restrictions.
Like gyms across the county, Fit Athletic’s five locations will go from 50 percent capacity to 100 percent on Tuesday. All equipment will be open, instead of every other machine closed to encourage social distancing; and saunas will reopen.
Scott Lutwak, owner of Fit Athletic, said it will require employees to wear masks but not customers. He said he has followed laws strictly throughout the pandemic and does not want to do anything wrong.
EōS Fitness, a gym chain with three locations in San Diego County, said it is too soon to say what it will do, beginning Tuesday.
“At this time we don’t have a clear picture of what will be expected of businesses with regard to mask requirements,” the company said in a statement, “but we hope to receive clear guidance from the state soon to help guide our decision process. What we can tell you is, we plan to adhere to all state and local guidelines as we have throughout the pandemic, prioritizing the health and safety of our members and team members.”
As is the case with most businesses, mask-wearing will no longer be required, except for the unvaccinated, whether it’s a grocery store, a boutique or big box retailer, per state and local guidelines. Individual retailers, including those in malls, will still have the option of imposing their own restrictions.
Customers at Ralphs grocery stores “will no longer be required to wear a mask per Governor Newsom’s June 15 re-opening plan,” spokesman John Votava said in a statement. Given the still evolving guidance surrounding facial coverings for employers, retailers like Ralphs say they will follow the California rules as of last November that mandate masks for all.
Target states that across all of its stores, it no longer requires fully vaccinated guests and team members to wear face coverings — “except where it’s required by local ordinances.” Just this month, it reopened fitting rooms in its San Diego County stores.
With the wider reopening, some malls are making some changes in keeping with the relaxed standards. At Westfield UTC, for example, the children’s play area will reopen and some live events will return. And at Westfield North County and Plaza Bonita, the Trackless Train Ride and Crazy Safari Animal Rides will reopen.
San Diego toy store chain owner Brian Miller said he welcomes the lifting of the mask mandate given the sometimes difficult discussions his employees have had with customers unwilling to don face coverings.
“I’ve surveyed my employees and I think most of them want to continue wearing masks because they’re working with consumers they don’t know,” said Miller, owner of the Geppetto’s chain. " I would not require it but if they’re more comfortable doing that, I’m fine with that.”
Under the current tiered system, retail outlets have not had capacity limitations for some time, which Miller says has measurably improved business at his nine locations.
Now open at 50 percent capacity, cinemas will no longer have COVID-19 restrictions on the number of patrons. On AMC theaters’ website, it currently notes that masks are not required for fully vaccinated patrons but states that it continues to follow applicable state and local mandates. “If you are not fully vaccinated, we ask that you continue to wear a mask throughout the theatre unless actively enjoying food or drinks,” the company says.
It also notes that auditorium capacities are reduced to meet or exceed state or local guidelines but makes no reference to California’s new guidelines that call for no such restrictions.
At The Lot cinemas in La Jolla and Liberty station, CEO Adolfo Fastlicht said he’s looking forward to expanding to 100 percent capacity, provided he can hire enough workers by Tuesday. Even at full capacity, Fastlicht points out that seating in his luxury auditoriums is, by design, more spacious.
“You’re not going to be seated with hundreds of people so our design already contemplates social distancing,” he said. “You’re certainly not sitting elbow to elbow. It’s not an airplane. And our employees will still be wearing masks, as required. That’s also a way to tell our customers we are doing something that to protect them and the employees.”
Sporting events, concerts and conventions
Even as California transitions to its widest reopening since the pandemic-forced shutdown last March, health officials are carving out special conditions for what they’re calling “mega events,” defined as those drawing large crowds of more than 5,000 indoors and 10,000 outdoors.
For indoor gatherings, like conventions, some sporting events and concerts, the rules are stiffest — required verification that attendees have been fully vaccinated or have tested negative for COVID-19. However, for outdoor events, such as music festivals, parades and sporting events, vaccinations and negative tests are “strongly recommended,” and attendees who do not verify vaccination status should be asked to wear face coverings.
The mega events guidelines are set to expire Oct. 1.
Up until now, the Padres have been adhering to capacity limits at home games and have designated sections for fully vaccinated fans and those who have had a recent negative COVID-19 test. Still, other sections are reserved for spectators who want to be socially distanced. That will change, however, starting Thursday, when Petco Park returns to full capacity for its upcoming homestand. The ballgames are considered mega events.
“While it is not feasible operationally for us to verify the vaccination status of 40,000+ fans coming through our gates, we recommend that all fans get vaccinated,” the Padres said in a statement. “We are also partnering with MLB and the County of San Diego to provide additional vaccination opportunities, both at Petco Park and other locations throughout the County, with access to tickets to future Padres games for those who participate.”
The upcoming U.S. Open, which will be returning to the Torrey Pines South Course next week for the first time since 2008, will have limited capacity for spectators because at the time planning got under way several months ago, the pandemic guidelines were much more stringent, explained Jeff Altstadter, director of championship communications for the U.S. Golf Association.
Some of the rules in play, though, for the golf tournament, were updated this week to reflect the state’s changing guidelines for Tuesday and beyond. For instance, masks will not be required for spectators, but unvaccinated individuals will have to wear face coverings indoors. In addition, all attendees must verbally attest that they were vaccinated against Covid-19 at least 14 days prior to their first day attending the tournament or that they had a negative Covid-19 test result. If they unable to do so, they cannot attend, although actual proof is not required. The tournament is relying on an honor system, Altstadter said.
Estimated attendance throughout the tournament is 8,000 to 10,000 paid spectators.
For conventions and concerts, there will be a longer wait for a return to normalcy. Currently, none of San Diego’s biggest outdoor and indoor concert venues — including Cal Coast Credit Union Amphitheatre at SDSU, the Civic Theatre, and Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the new summer home of the symphony — are scheduled to reopen until August or September.
San Diego’s bayfront convention center, currently a federal intake center for unaccompanied migrant children, will welcome its first convention — SPIE Optics + Photonics — Aug. 1-5, after nearly 1 1/2 years of no conferences and trade shows.
At the Manchester Grand Hyatt, in-person meetings — the lifeblood of what is San Diego’s largest convention hotel — is slowly picking up, especially since the announcement of California’s wide reopening this month. The hotel’s biggest meeting near term is one that will draw about 600 attendees in August, said General Manager Daniel Kuperschmid.
“I think September through December could be very good for us,” he said. “Maybe it won’t be back to normal but it could be on a trajectory where we could see a return of that meetings business.”
While SeaWorld, Legoland and the zoo can return to full capacity, each is handling their transition a bit differently.
Visitors to the zoo and Safari Park will no longer need to make date-specific reservations before coming, while SeaWorld and Legoland say they will continue to require reservations for all guests.
The zoo’s guided, 35-minute bus tour is returning on Tuesday, and at SeaWorld, indoor dining venues will reopen and Mission Bay Theater, the park’s indoor theater, will open up with a new show featuring Sesame Street characters called Let’s Play Together.
While masks are not required, the theme parks are advising their guests to abide by the rules applicable to the unvaccinated.
On Tuesday, agents can resume open houses without requiring appointments. Requirements were eased during the pandemic to allow potential buyers to come inside if they made one-on-one appointments with an agent for a type of open house.
“It will be less burdensome,” said Carla Farley, president of the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors. “It should ease things.”
However, some sellers are not comfortable with a lot of maskless people walking through their homes. Farley said many sellers have asked agents to require masks and social distancing when showing the house. She said some sellers have even requested potential buyers show proof of vaccination before entering.
Renters and evictions
Almost nothing will change for landlords in San Diego County come Tuesday.
All renters are under an eviction ban with no end date and landlords must not raise rent more than 4.1 percent on current tenants.
San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors in May passed one of the strictest anti-eviction laws in the state. It blocks landlords from evicting for almost any reason, even “just cause” reasons such as lease violations. The ordinance says this protection will be in place for two months after California’s state of emergency ended.
The Southern California Rental Housing Association has sued San Diego County over the law, arguing it violates owners’ federal constitutional rights for remedies to stop unlawful conduct at their properties. It also asserts that the law went beyond the county’s jurisdiction to apply to all cities in the county. A hearing is scheduled for federal court in San Diego for June 21.
The statewide eviction ban ends June 30, meaning San Diego County will be one of the few places in California still under strict controls for landlords.
After state lockdown orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom went into effect in March 2020, San Diego Gas & Electric announced it would not disconnect power from customers who did not pay their bills on time — a policy the California Public Utilities Commission adopted statewide.
Barring an extension, however, the moratorium ends after June 30.
As of January, the utilities commission estimated 3.3 million residential customers across the state have past-due power bills. Taken together, the amount owed comes to about $1.25 billion, with residential customers in SDG&E’s service territory accounting for $145.3 million of that.
Earlier this month, Newsom proposed earmarking $2 billion in the state 2022 budget to help Californians pay their overdue water and utility bills. On June 24, the utilities commission is expected to vote on a proposal ordering power companies to provide all residential customers two years to pay off past-due energy bills.
California is still participating in the extra $300-a-week in enhanced federal benefits for the unemployed. That is good news for those still looking for work as more than a dozen states have stopped benefits, or will soon.
Californians should still receive the extra funds, under the American Rescue Plan, until Sept. 6. Newsom has proposed sending stimulus checks to working- and middle-class Californians as part of returning surplus tax money required under the state’s constitution.
The jobless rate in San Diego County was 6.7 percent in April, reported the state Employment Development Department. It was down significantly from a year earlier, at the start of the pandemic, when the rate hit a record high of 15.9 percent.
Staff writer Rob Nikolewski contributed to this story.
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