California reopens to joy, tinged with sorrow over 63,000 dead
As of Tuesday, restrictions were lifted at most businesses, and Californians fully vaccinated for COVID-19 could go without masks in most settings.
California is back.
As of Tuesday morning, coronavirus-related capacity restrictions and physical distancing requirements were lifted at almost all businesses and other institutions. State residents who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 can now go without face masks in most nonwork situations.
The day comes after 15 months of fear, frustration, upheaval and misery and was made possible through collective sacrifice and scientific achievement — but only after the pandemic left a deep scar on the state’s collective psyche.
For tens of millions of Californians and countless businesses, the reopening signals new hope of brighter days as the shadow cast by COVID-19 shrinks.
While Tuesday may eventually take root in the wider public consciousness as the day California declared victory over the coronavirus, the toll the battle exacted remains staggering.
More than 3.77 million Californians — greater than the entire population of San Diego County — have tested positive for the virus at some point. And nearly 63,000 people, roughly equivalent to the population of the city of Encinitas, have died from COVID-19 statewide.
“Today is the day to celebrate the incredible journey we’ve been on over the course of the last 15 months,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. “It is also a humbling moment ... because it’s been a tough journey for tens of thousands of people that have lost their lives. And we’re mindful this disease is not taking today off; it’s not going to take the summer months off.”
Still, the excitement was palpable Tuesday as residents enjoyed their first day of near-normal life in more than a year.
Najee Ali, 58, sat in a booth at Langer’s Deli, slathering a stack of pancakes with butter and syrup.
He had been coming to the iconic Los Angeles diner for more than three decades and was one of the first customers there when the restaurant reopened Tuesday morning for in-person dining after more than a year of offering only delivery and takeout.
“It’s one of the best days of my life because I, along with many others, experienced the worst global health crisis of our lifetime,” Ali said. “So this is something that we will never forget that we experienced.”
After their restaurant had been closed to in-person dining for 469 days, owners Norm and Jeanette Langer cut a large red ribbon outside the Westlake deli at about 8 a.m., welcoming diners back.
“We had no idea whether we were going to be closed a week, a month, a year or never reopen,” Norm Langer said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”
Langer, 76, hurried about, chatting with employees and greeting customers while the deli hummed with activity: employees slicing pastrami, customers placing their favorite orders.
Jaime Castaneda, 60, was working behind the counter. It was a “sad moment” when the deli closed a year ago, “something we never encountered before,” he said. Langer had to lay off all of his servers when the restaurant closed.
Castaneda pointed at the other workers around him. Many of them have been here for 10, 20, 30 years, he said.
“It’s a big day for California,” he said. Still, “we cannot let down our guard yet.”
Jeanette Langer said she expected it would take time before all their old customers returned, noting, “I think people are going to be more cautious.”
At Charlie’s Best Burgers in East Los Angeles, patrons and staff treated California’s reopening day like any other.
The burger and Mexican food chain still required customers to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
“Right now, there are just too many unvaccinated people to not ask our customers to wear masks,” said restaurant general manager Jorge Jimenez, 35.
“If you look at the area, it’s been hit hard by COVID-19. It doesn’t make sense right now to change.”
According to county records, more than 25,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in East L.A., along with 432 deaths.
“We have been filled with profound grief because of the many loved ones that we lost and people that suffered during the pandemic,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis said Tuesday.
Though the pandemic remains on a positive trajectory overall, Solis said she can’t forget those who died from the disease — including the more than 24,000 who perished in L.A. County.
“So while we mourn them and we pray for them and provide condolences to their family, we also look forward to a better day,” she said.
When his restaurant first implemented a mask mandate last spring, Jimenez said several customers refused and left. Since then, however, the community has generally accepted the protocol.
Friends Albert Ramon, Kenneth Ruiz and Yerson Henriquez, all 19, had pulled down their surgical and cloth masks to dine on Tuesday.
“Honestly, I still think it’s way too early,” Ramon said of lifting many of the pandemic protocols.
Part of what has made Charlie’s Best Burger appealing, Henriquez said, is that the restaurant still enforces a mask mandate.
Other businesses along South Atlantic Boulevard — La Raza Market, Basket Burger Café and Mi Cabaña Restaurant — were also asking patrons to continue wearing masks.
In Long Beach, Christopher Hudak read the new sign taped outside of CoffeeDrunk: “Your safety is important to us. Masks are recommended.”
The 24-year-old kept his on as he walked inside and ordered his usual iced coffee.
Despite the new state rules that drop mask requirements for vaccinated customers in most situations, Hudak said he didn’t plan to leave his face covering behind anytime soon.
“I’m still used to it,” he said. “Right now, it’s mainly a habit.”
Inside the coffee shop, barista Jessica Lopez, 28, said, “It’s nice to see pretty faces.”
Most of the morning’s clients entered wearing face masks. One woman walked in slowly, asking whether it was OK if she didn’t wear hers. Lopez told her it was fine and helped take her order.
Realizing he had forgotten his mask, Adam Cyril, 27, asked the clerk at a Whole Foods in West Hollywood if the store could give him one. The employee replied, much to Cyril’s surprise, that he didn’t need one.
“It felt like I was restored as a human being again, and I got some rights back,” said Cyril, who planned to grab a coffee and sparkling water.
For the past year, the Manhattan Beach resident has commuted almost daily by Uber to his construction job near the upscale market on Fairfax Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. It’s been hard for him to drive for such long periods wearing a mask, which he said irritates his nose and has caused acne breakouts on his face.
Cyril entered the store unmasked and found only one other woman — a “brave lady” — shopping barefaced. It felt novel and commonplace at the same time, he said, adding that he almost snapped a selfie of him among the sea of masked patrons.
“It actually felt like, ‘Boom, am I in a time vortex? Did I just go back in time?’” he said. “I didn’t realize what was going on.”
Among those ready to ditch their masks was Tiffany Jackson, 32.
“Masks are so stupid. I think it’s some of the stupidest things ever,” she said while drinking lemonade and chatting with the employees of Civilization Coffee and Kitchen in downtown Los Angeles. “I’m ready to see faces, smiles, ready to just go out and have a drink with friends or just be social.”
The manager of Civilization — Marlon Duran, 44 — was frying food behind the counter. The new owner bought Civilization in early 2020 and was still paying off debts when the pandemic hit. During the worst of it, the restaurant only made about $100 a day, Duran said, and for many months only he and the owner were working.
The shop has started to rebound, buoyed by more business from locals. Now, it boasts three employees, and Duran hopes to hire two more.
California has made tremendous strides in beating back the worst the pandemic had to offer.
Over the past week, the state has reported 896 new coronavirus cases per day — down 40% from just two weeks ago amid a continuing decline, according to data compiled by The Times. On Monday, fewer than 1,000 coronavirus-positive patients were receiving care in the state’s hospitals.
Case rates and hospitalization numbers haven’t been this low since last spring, when the early embers of the pandemic were starting to flare up.
The progress is especially stark when compared with the darkest days of the state’s fall-and-winter surge, when an average of 45,000 new infections were being confirmed daily, and hospitals were pushed dangerously close to the breaking point by a crush of daily COVID-19 patients that peaked at nearly 22,000.
Although Tuesday will bring a wide return to normal, some restrictions will remain in place.
Though fully vaccinated people are no longer required by the state to wear masks in most settings — such as stores, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and family entertainment centers — unvaccinated people are still largely required to mask up indoors while in public.
Later this week, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is expected to vote on a proposal that would also allow fully vaccinated workers to remove their masks in the workplace and for physical distancing requirements to be rescinded.
All Californians, regardless of vaccination status, will still need to don face coverings while at transit hubs or aboard public transportation; in healthcare settings and long-term-care facilities; indoors at K-12 schools, child-care facilities or other youth settings; in homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers; and in correctional facilities and detention centers.
A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after getting the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Additional requirements remain in place for large indoor and outdoor venues and events — such as conventions, theme parks, concerts and sporting events.
Organizers of indoor events with more than 5,000 people will be required to verify that attendees are either fully vaccinated or have tested negative within 72 hours of the event’s start time.
The same will be recommended, though not required, for organizers of outdoor events with more than 10,000 attendees. In those instances, venues will have the option of allowing unvaccinated and untested attendees, provided those people wear a mask at all times.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.