'A day to celebrate': California, once epicenter of COVID-19 pandemic, marks its reopening

It was only about six months ago that California leaders issued desperate pleas for residents to shelter in place as emergency rooms overfilled with COVID-19 patients. The state ushered in some of the strictest measures to counter the virus, closing beaches and outdoor dining, as it became the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. 

But now the nation's most populous state has reopened, shedding most restrictions and promising an economic upswing as the country moves past months marked with death and economic devastation. 

"Today is a day to celebrate, a day to reconnect with strangers, loved ones, family members; give people hugs," Newsom said Tuesday, touting the reopening at Universal Studios Hollywood with a backdrop of families entering the theme park and animated characters at his side like Shrek and the Minions. "We're going to come back, roaring back. California is open again. California has turned the page. Let us all celebrate this remarkable milestone."

The state started out the pandemic being hailed as a leader in countering the virus. It was the first to issue a lockdown order. And as the coronavirus began its U.S. invasion, California was largely left untouched, at least at first. 

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Over the months, the state would start reopening efforts multiple times only to pull back the reins as cases grew.

Restrictions would ease, allowing businesses to reopen and spend the money needed to restock and rehire – only for restrictions to be reinstated again. Public schools remained shuttered for the majority of the pandemic and still have yet to fully reopen. Theme parks, outdoor sports, museums, hiking trails and beaches were all subject to closure. About a third of California's restaurants shuttered for good over the months of the pandemic. 

For a while, it seemed to work. Cases stayed relatively low as attention focused on places like New York or the Dakotas that were weathering unfathomable infection rates, with hospitals and morgues filling up. 

Then success changed in the late fall and early winter as an intense surge hit California. The state became epicenter of the pandemic for a time. The virus filled the state's ICUs and mystified experts, many of whom still struggle to rationalize why California's precautions weren't enough to stop the surge even as more lax states saw fewer cases. 

The tensions boiled over in the state, leaving the governor facing a recall election. 

Now, California has shed most of its restrictions and joins the majority of states that have already reopened. The state boasts some of the highest vaccination levels in the country, with about 55% of residents fully vaccinated and 66% with at least one shot. It's also maintained some of the lowest infection rates in the U.S. over the last few weeks. 

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As part of the reopening, state leaders touted a California vacation giveaway for vaccinated residents. The aim is not only to incentivize vaccinations, but also luring travelers back to exploring the state. Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, said it would take years to rebound from  the coronavirus. She compared Californians spending money in the state on vacations to "a modern-day act of patriotism."

"California is perceived to be less destination ready than the rest of United States in particular, our friends in Florida," she said at a news conference Monday. "That's the hard work we have to do, but again, that's because this governor kept us safe. And now, it's time to come open and accelerate the recovery curve but with the lessons learned. That's the challenge before us." 

The tier system employed by the state, which used different colors to indicate the level of restrictions based on COVID-19 outbreaks in areas, was tossed out Tuesday. Restaurants are allowed to serve at full capacity. Theme parks, like Disneyland and Universal Studios, are fully reopened. Vaccinated individuals won't need to wear masks in most situations, unless a business has other restrictions. 

There will still be some measures in place to ensure COVID-19 rates remain low. For instance, Californians will be required to be vaccinated if they attend an indoor event with more than 5,000 people. If a person isn't vaccinated, they will have to get a COVID-19 test beforehand. The state is recommending a similar protocol for outdoor events with 10,000 people. 

Newsom and other leaders have touted the reopening as a major comeback for the state, its residents and the economy but have also voiced caution.

"This is not a day where we spike the football this is not a day where we announce mission accomplished, quite the contrary," Newsom said. "We're mindful this disease is not taking today off, it's not going to take the summer months off. This disease remains as deadly as it's ever been." 

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