Bay Area Plans to Align With State, Drop COVID Restrictions

The majority of California’s nine Bay Area counties plan to drop their COVID-19 restrictions when the state does the same next week. The area has had some of the strictest restrictions during the pandemic.

(TNS) — The Bay Area will be wide open along with the rest of California when the state lifts almost all pandemic restrictions next week. Even San Francisco, which has had among the strictest public health responses in the country, plans to align with the state, city officials said Tuesday night.

Health officials in all nine Bay Area counties have said that with very few exceptions, they plan to go along with the rest of the state in lifting mask mandates, capacity rules and pretty much every other order meant to force social distancing and prevent spread of the coronavirus in public settings.

San Francisco public health officials had hinted that they might keep in place some local mandates, but in a meeting with local business leaders Tuesday night, they said those exceptions would apply only to certain indoor settings such as homeless shelters and nursing homes, or so-called mega events with more than 5,000 people gathered indoors or 10,000 outside.

"It's simple: We are aligning with the state. We are opening San Francisco," said Dr. Susan Philip, the San Francisco health officer.

"We have an environment that is so much more safe than it was in the winter, and in other parts of the country that have not stepped up to the vaccine," Philip said, sharing charts showing how far the city's local case counts have dropped over the past several months, alongside rapidly climbing vaccination rates.

"Because of that, there's very little risk to fully resuming in-person activities if you're vaccinated, and this even extends to people who have not yet gotten vaccinated," Philip said. "When the case rates are this low it benefits everyone."

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to widely reopen California more than two months ago, but it's been unclear until recently whether the Bay Area counties would fully go along. Since the start of the pandemic, the region typically has had a more aggressive public health response, starting with issuing the first shelter-in-place order last March.

When the rest of the state began emerging from that first lockdown, much of the Bay Area stayed under tighter restrictions, and the same thing happened again in the fall after a summer surge in cases. Under the state's color-coded blueprint, San Francisco tended to linger in a more restrictive tier for a while after the state allowed it to advance.

Business leaders and some public health experts have said that the patchwork response bred confusion and frustration among residents, and led some people to refuse to cooperate. A group of California business and economic organizations sent a letter to state health officers this week pleading with them to align with the state on reopening.

"Minority small business owners and workers were hit extremely hard with the shutdowns and many are still struggling to get back on their feet," Edwin Lombard, president and chief executive of the California African American Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. "We need to get families back to work, but businesses cannot easily reopen and rehire employees if local governments are not aligning with the state's June 15 reopening plan."

The state confirmed its reopening date in mid-May, revealing at the time that it would lift all capacity limits and other social distancing restrictions. Most Bay Area county officials said they would align with the state, although several admitted that they still had some reservations. San Mateo County officials, for example, said they would ask local retail stores to keep in place mask mandates for customers and employees, but would not require it.

Over the past three weeks, all Bay Area counties have confirmed they will go along with the state plan.

"We're not anticipating any physical distancing rules being in place after the 15th" in Santa Clara County, James Williams, county counsel, said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. He said the county has only one local order in place at the moment, requiring businesses to collect the vaccination status of employees. The county does not plan to issue any new orders, health officials have said.

With less than a week before reopening, there remain some areas of uncertainty about how that will look.

County health officials said they are waiting for clarity from California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/ OSHA, about the circumstances under which employees will have to wear masks in the workplace. Cal/ OSHA ruled last week that employees could go maskless if everyone in a room was vaccinated, but had to wear face coverings if a single unvaccinated person was around.

Businesses and some public health officials have said that policy would be onerous for businesses to enforce. Cal/ OSHA is expected to meet again this week to revisit the topic.

San Francisco leaders said they are eager to reopen along with the rest of the state and bring people back to their pre-pandemic lifestyle — packing bars in the Castro, cheering maskless at a Giants game, and even sharing condiments at a Mexican restaurant.

"We have sometimes moved a little slower, and that is OK because we've been focused on saving lives," Mayor London Breed said at Tuesday's meeting with business leaders. "We are ready to align with the state and reopen on June 15. Yes, some rules will remain. But for the most part we are finally moving back to some level of normal.

"Even I went to a bar. I usually don't go to bars, but I just went to a bar and ordered a drink. Just because I could do it, I did it," she added. "Your mayor is excited about what's coming."

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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