California eases lockdowns as state’s COVID-19 crisis ebbs

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California eased strict COVID-19 stay-at-home orders on Monday, allowing restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining and greater social mixing as state public health officials cited slowing rates of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

The announcement marked the most tangible sign yet that California, which emerged in recent months as a leading U.S. hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic, has moved beyond the worst days of a crisis that pushed much of its healthcare system to the breaking point.

The improved outlook in California, the most populous U.S. state with 40 million residents, came as the country as a whole surpassed the alarming milestone of 25 million known infections, with nearly 419,000 lives lost during the pandemic.

California’s stay-at-home restrictions, among the most stringent constraints on business and social life imposed anywhere in the country, were triggered in early December when available space in hospital intensive care units reached maximum capacity.

Governor Gavin Newsom said infection rates and hospital admissions have since declined dramatically. Projections show available ICU capacity climbing well above minimum thresholds over the next month.

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“But we are not out of the woods,” Newsom added, urging people to keep abiding by mask-wearing requirements and social distancing until collective immunity can be achieved through vaccinations.

The stay-at-home rules ended on Monday had required residents to remain largely indoors and avoid travel around the clock, except as necessary for permitted activities such as grocery shopping, medical appointments, individual outdoor exercise and dog walks.

Those constraints were lifted on Monday for Southern California, the San Francisco Bay area and the state’s largely agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The greater Sacramento area was excused from the order two weeks ago, and the extreme northern California region was never under it.

The governor stressed that lesser restrictions imposed in November remained in effect for most of the state – a nightly curfew on all indoor social gatherings and non-essential activities outside the home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

He said 54 of California’s 58 counties remain under that curfew for now as part of the state’s color-coded purple tier of the strictest COVID-19 public health measures.

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One of the most immediate practical effects of Monday’s action is that restaurants, which had been restricted to carryout and delivery service only, can return to offering outdoor dining.

Nail and hair salons may also reopen on a limited basis to indoor service, with customers and staff required to wear masks, while certain youth sports competitions are permitted to resume as well.

Newsom said California has tripled its pace of administering vaccines, reporting giving nearly 2.2 million doses out of 4.1 doses shipped to the state as of Saturday. The goal is to give 1 million more shots over the next 10 days.

As previously announced, Californians aged 65 and older have are now eligible for vaccines along with healthcare workers, first-responders, food and agricultural workers, teachers and school staff.

After those groups, immunization eligibility will be prioritized among the general public on the basis of age, Newsom said.

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