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California reopens to joy, tinged with sorrow over 63,000 dead

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Realizing he had forgotten his mask, Adam Cyril asked the clerk at a Whole Foods in West Hollywood if the store could give him one.

The employee replied that he didn’t need one anymore, a response that left Cyril feeling surprised, and weirdly normal.

“It actually felt like, ‘Boom. Am I in a time vortex? Did I just go back in time?’” said Cyril, 27, recalling pre-pandemic life without masks.

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Similar scenes played out across the state Tuesday, which could well be remembered as a milestone moment in California’s battle with the coronavirus, and the day face coverings as a way of life became a thing of the past for vaccinated people.

For more than a year, Californians have lived lives defined by limitations. Businesses couldn’t welcome as many patrons as they once had. Museums and music venues gathered dust rather than crowds. Residents were told to stay home — and to mask up should they venture outside.
But now, as the shadow cast by COVID-19 shrinks, a new day has dawned: one that feels at turns familiar and foreign.

Coronavirus-related capacity restrictions and physical distancing requirements have been lifted for the general public at almost all businesses and other institutions. Residents who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 can now go without face masks in most nonwork situations, though those who aren’t inoculated will still largely be required to mask up indoors while in public.

Throughout the Southland, the excitement was palpable as residents enjoyed their first day of near-normal life in 15 months.

“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,” said South Los Angeles activist Najee Ali, 58, as he sat in a booth at Langer’s Deli, slathering a stack of pancakes with butter and syrup. “So this is something that we will never forget that we experienced.”
The feeling of newfound freedom was widespread.

Kelly Cook, 51, hadn’t watched a movie in theaters since January 2019. But she was back at the downtown Regal LA Live cinema Tuesday.

The two young girls she was babysitting were both masked. She was not.

“I feel liberated,” Cook said of the lifted restrictions.

John Sullivan, 71, who walked throughout Orange County’s South Coast Plaza, said he had “been waiting for this day” because it meant he could put on his dancing shoes — and mingle with women.

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For the past year, all the events at his community association in Laguna Woods have been canceled. Now, in light of the state’s reopening, the association set a date for a dance next month.

The music of choice? Rock ‘n’ roll.

“That’s what we like,” Sullivan said.
Many businesses, too, were eager to cast aside the shackles they have long endured on account of the coronavirus.

Except for the hand sanitizer stations, there was no sign of the pandemic or its protocols at Don Jose’s Department Store in Lincoln Heights.

“To be able to get back to being normal again after a year and a half of the pandemic is very nice,” said store owner Jose Rocha, 38.

And at Palm Beach Tan in West Hollywood, employee Gray Webb said the salon had just lifted mask requirements for customers who are fully vaccinated. Employees will still need to wear face coverings for the time being, though a California safety board will vote on a proposal Thursday that would allow most fully vaccinated workers to stop wearing masks.

Webb said he was ready to get back to normal and feeling positive about the reopening.

“I’m feeling good,” he said. “I’m over COVID.”

But after 15 months of fear, frustration, upheaval and misery, the pandemic has clearly left a deep scar on the state’s collective psyche.

For some, it’s still too early to abandon their masks or the other safety precautions that have become part of everyday life.

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, and 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.”

Sabra Schlepphorst, 59, wore her black-and-white striped face mask as she cautiously navigated her way through the crowded Bath & Body Works store in South Coast Plaza.

She craves normalcy, but is hesitant to ditch her mask and other safety precautions because she is immunocompromised and only recently received approval from her doctor to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine.

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Schlepphorst said she hopes people will avoid “Karen situations” and remain respectful whether they wear a mask or not.

“If it’s hot, the first thing you want to do is rip it off,” she said. “Be aware. Be respectful.”

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.”

Signs in English and Chinese told any customer entering Ken Huo’s Furma Mattress store in Temple City that they must wear a facial covering.

The idea that the state would recommend the end of mask usage repulsed Huo, 59.

“This virus is incredibly dangerous, and I can’t believe people don’t want to understand that,” Huo said. “I know people want to go back to ‘good times,’ but where’s the responsibility? Where’s the accountability?”

Last November, Huo said, his 37-year son was hospitalized with COVID-19 and nearly died before slowly making a recovery.

“I’ve never cried so hard in my life as the day I found out I couldn’t do anything for my son,” Huo said. “So, don’t expect me to open up anytime soon, because the virus is still out there.”

Tuesday is not the first time California has tried to reopen its economy during the pandemic. Efforts to lift or ease restrictions on businesses and activities last spring and again in the fall both triggered new surges of COVID-19.

But officials are optimistic that things will be different this time around.

COVID-19 is in full retreat statewide. Case rates and hospitalization numbers are lower than they’ve been since spring 2020, when the early embers of the outbreak were starting to flare up.

Average daily COVID-19 deaths are down 97% from the peak of the pandemic. And in recent days, the state’s seven-day coronavirus test positivity rate has been less than 0.8% — the lowest such figure on record.

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Experts say the credit for the state’s progress goes to the individual actions of those residents and businesses that took appropriate action to curb transmission, as well as the continued rollout of vaccines, which Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer likened to “a suit of armor.”

More than 70% of California adults — and 56.5% of all residents — have received at least one vaccine dose to date.

“We can and we should feel joy while recognizing and honoring the immense collective effort that brought us to the point where we can now do this,” Ferrer said.

But while Tuesday may eventually take root in the wider public consciousness as the day California ended the pandemic era, the toll the battle exacted remains staggering, and officials say it’s still too early to declare victory.

“We have been filled with profound grief because of the many loved ones that we lost and people that suffered during the pandemic,” said L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Over 3.77 million Californians, more 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 Redondo Beach, have died from COVID-19 statewide.

Even as he took the stage at Universal Studios Hollywood to oversee the drawing of 10 grand-prize winners in the state’s vaccine sweepstakes — each of whom will take home $1.5 million — Gov. Gavin Newsom still struck a cautious tone.

The reopening, though long anticipated, “is not a day to spike the football,” he said. “This is not a day where we announce ‘mission accomplished,’ quite the contrary.”

“Today is the day to celebrate the incredible journey we’ve been on over the course of the last 15 months,” he said. “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.”

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