After suggestions that Newsom is planning to add a less-restrictive green tier to California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that, assuming the current COVID trajectory in California remains, the tiered system that has been in place since August will be eliminated entirely. According to Governor Newsom, it will be “business as usual” again.
Every Californian has been waiting for this day to come. While we now have June 15 circled on our calendars, Newsom’s announcement has led to more questions than answers.
One might assume a fully reopened, tier-free economy means Californians can finally throw away their masks. But Governor Newsom said in his press conference that the mask mandate will remain in effect after the reopening. The California Department of Public Health also stated that even when the state goes “beyond the Blueprint,” workplaces would still need to “promote policies that reduce risk and mask wearing in indoor and other high-risk settings as well as remote work when possible without impacting business operations.” These lingering restrictions don’t exactly scream “Back to normal!”
Another presumption with Newsom’s announcement is that schools would reopen in-person, five full days a week. This would be incorrect. According to the California Department of Public Health, “Schools and institutions of higher education should conduct full-time, in-person instruction, in compliance with Cal/OSHA emergency temporary standards and public health guidelines” (my emphasis added). “Should” is not the same thing as “mandated.” The Governor reinforced that message in his address on Tuesday that fully reopening schools is “an expectation but not a requirement.”
The slated reopening date of June 15 also raises questions. California’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, explained the timing for the June 15 reopening. This is based on the date everyone ages 16 and older qualifies to be vaccinated: April 15. It can take two weeks to wait for an initial dose, four weeks between first and second doses, and two weeks for the second dose to take effect for a total of eight weeks.
The reasoning makes sense if COVID-19 affected all groups the same and the first dose does not offer any immediate protection. But, it has been well-documented that COVID-19 affects elderly people and those with pre-existing conditions far more than it does healthy teenagers. At least 70% of elderly Americans have already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Delaying the reopening until those least-susceptible to catching COVID have received both doses is unnecessary. Plus, two weeks after the initial dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, those vaccinated will already have up to 80% protection.
Importantly, California’s current case rate is 22.5 times less than it was during the winter wave peak, and is currently one the lowest in the nation. Yet, Newsom’s reopening is not slated to occur until summer.
Meanwhile, states across the country have created their own reopening plans.
Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio said that once cases drop below 50 per 100,000 people for two weeks, all public health orders will be lifted. This equates to about 3.6 new cases per day per 100,000 people. To put this in perspective, many counties in California have already reached this benchmark (although not the state as a whole just yet).
Another option is the approach by Governor Greg Abbott. On March 10, he reopened all of Texas and eliminated the mask mandate. Texas’ COVID numbers have been trending down since the reopening.
While each plan has its pros and cons, both of these plans have concrete action items and include a full reopening.
While there is cause for celebration as more people are getting vaccinated and the end of public health restrictions is in sight, June 15 may not be the “Independence Day” we are hoping for.
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Brandon Ristoff is a policy analyst for the California Policy Center.