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In California, Most Pandemic Restrictions Are Lifted As The State Reopens

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the state of California is open. Governor Gavin Newsom is lifting most pandemic restrictions. His state was once considered the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. At one point, 10 people were dying every hour from COVID-19 just in Los Angeles. But so much has changed. Jackie Fortier is a health reporter at member station KPCC in Los Angeles, and she's on the line. Good morning.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Wow. It must feel very different today than a few months ago.

FORTIER: Yes, yes, it definitely does. Everything is - people are really looking forward to it.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the big changes?

FORTIER: There are three big changes. Masks are no longer required for vaccinated people in most situations. The stay-at-home order is gone. And that color-coded tier system that restricted businesses disappears. That's a big change for Tommy Mofid. He owns the Wrigley Tavern in Long Beach. Since the bar was allowed to reopen in April, he's only been permitted to let half the usual number of people in. But today, he goes back to full capacity.

TOMMY MOFID: Ecstatic. I feel like June 15 is going to allow us to go back to somewhat of a normal business plan.

FORTIER: Now that he's expecting more customers, he wants to hire a bartender and servers. He's been taking out ads and asking around for months.

MOFID: When I went to the store across the street to buy a help wanted sign, they had sold out. I really don't know what could cause a shortage in bartenders in Southern California because I have never known that to be the case. But today, there is.

FORTIER: And he's got another decision to make, whether to ask his customers to mask up.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, I'm just dwelling for a moment on the help wanted signs being sold out. That's impressive. But masking seems critical since not everybody is vaccinated. And, in fact, kids under 12 can't be vaccinated yet. So can people do without masks?

FORTIER: Well, unvaccinated people are supposed to wear a mask indoors? But businesses can decide whether to enforce that. They have three options for their customers. They can require everyone to wear a mask. They can rely on the honor system. Or they can use a vaccine verification system, which is supposed to launch later this month. So I'd say people should really keep their masks handy. If places they go allow it, you know, vaccinated customers can go back to the gym, or they could sit at a bar next to a stranger without a mask on. But we could see no mask, no service signs. Mask rules for workers gets much more complicated. After a ton of pressure from business groups, state regulators are expected to pass rules this week, allowing fully vaccinated workers to go without a mask.

INSKEEP: How's California doing in vaccinations?

FORTIER: Over half of people are fully vaccinated. That puts it ahead of the rate for the U.S. as a whole and puts us ahead of Texans and California, as well - and Florida, I mean. Wealthy areas are continuing to get the shot, but vaccinations are trending down in lower-income neighborhoods. Latinos and Black residents are behind rates for whites and Asians, and the lowest rates are still among Latinos.

INSKEEP: OK, so some people, as is true everywhere in the country - some people are still not vaccinated. Are officials keeping in mind the possibility that things could get worse again?

FORTIER: They are keeping it in mind. Technically, California is still under an emergency declaration. So the governor could institute another stay-at-home order. But there isn't a specific threshold that health officials have made public. Right now, the focus is really on vaccine equity, you know, reducing the gaps between the racial groups that I talked about. Rates are about 20% higher in wealthy neighborhoods than in poor areas. The state today is doing cash giveaways to get people interested in the shots. Today, 10 vaccinated Californians will be awarded $1.5 million each.

INSKEEP: Wow. Is your name in the lottery, Jackie?

FORTIER: It is because I'm vaccinated.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, well, good luck to you.

FORTIER: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Let us know if you win or whatever happens. Anyway, Jackie Fortier is with member station KPC (ph) in Los Angeles in California, which is lifting pandemic restrictions today. Jackie, thanks.

FORTIER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.