In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom promised business as usual, but there could be exceptions to everyday life returning to normal. Here are questions and answers to clear up confusion.

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California’s grand reopening day arrived, but it comes with a few asterisks. 

On June 15, our 15-month-long ordeal of public health restrictions, mandates, bans and color-coded tiers to stem the COVID-19 pandemic finally came to an end. As Gov. Gavin Newsom said in April and reaffirmed in May, June 15 is when “we can start to open up…business as usual.”

But the governor’s promise of a sudden milestone is colliding with the loophole-ridden gradualism of California labor law, local control and the imperatives of fighting a diminishing — but not defeated — virus that has killed 62,500 Californians and counting.

Some mixed messages along the way have added to the confusion. So what are the new rules and which old ones are still in place? Many of your questions, answered.

Will I be able to sit inside a bar, work out at a gym or go to the movies?

Probably. 

The average Californian can expect things to look fairly back-to-normal in most of the ways that matter. 

Moving “beyond the blueprint,” to use the state’s branding, and instead using federal health guidance for public places means that most businesses can dispense with social distancing requirements, capacity limits and forced closures. 

But there’s a difference between “can” and “must.” 

Counties will still be free to impose their own public health restrictions if they choose to — but only if they’re stricter than what the state is requiring. So far, no counties have said that they’ll part ways with the state’s rules, though a few, like San Francisco, say they’re still mulling over their options.

Even so, businesses aren’t taking any chances. On June 8, more than 35 business groups sent a letter to county governments across the state begging them to stick to the statewide rules.

Though business groups, who don’t relish the idea of getting sued, are hoping for consistent, cheap and easy-to-follow standards, your favorite restaurant, movie theater or hair salon is also free to impose its own public health restrictions. 

That means you shouldn’t be surprised if you still spot a few “No Mask, No Service” signs after June 15.

“We are not requiring businesses to, for example, have somebody at the door checking for vaccine status as a way to comply.”

mark ghaly, california health and human services secretary

Can I go to a concert?

Depends. Are we talking open mic at the local bar or Beyoncé at an arena?

The state has said it will impose additional restrictions on “mega events.” That’s defined as anything that draws more than 5,000 people indoors or 10,000 outside. (Sorry, nameless dude playing a melodica into a loop pedal, you are not a mega event).

According to the most recent state guidance, concerts, conventions and other indoor mega events will only be open to people who can prove that they’ve either been vaccinated (by showing a vaccination card, a photo of the card, or documentation from a doctor) or that they tested negative for the coronavirus in the last 72 hours. That kind of proof won’t necessarily be required at outdoor events such as baseball games, but the state is recommending that stadiums either impose such a rule or require masking.

Once I’m inside the bar, gym or movie theater, can I finally take this mask off?

Yes, if you’re vaccinated.

California’s public health officials confirmed that along with relaxed social distancing, the state will also drop its mask mandate on June 15 and instead adopt the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means vaccinated adults should feel free to go mask-less in most public spaces. There are still exceptions for venues where the potential for many vulnerable people congregating in a confined place is high: hospitals and other health care settings, school classrooms, prisons and jails, public transit and nursing homes.

If you’re unvaccinated, you’ll still be required to wear a mask indoors in most public places. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, said that businesses can require masks of all customers, implement a vaccination verification system or simply go with the honor system

“We are not requiring businesses to, for example, have somebody at the door checking for vaccine status as a way to comply with this,” he said.

What about when I’m at work?

After weeks of regulatory back-and-forth, workers now face the same restrictions as anyone else out in public.

More or less. It’s complicated.

Since last November, the state’s workplace safety regulator has been requiring most employees across the state to mask up and maintain six feet of distance from one another when possible. They’ve also required stores, restaurants and other employers to provide personal protective equipment to their staff, offer testing when necessary and, in some cases, set up pathogen-blocking furnishings such as plexiglass shields. 

Those requirements are now on the way out. 

Thursday afternoon, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health board agreed to a new set of rules. Vaccinated employees can now go maskless. Employers will have to ask their staff about their vaccination status and record their answers for posterity. But whether someone is or isn’t inoculated is based on “self-attestation” — regulatory-ese for the honor system. Employers will also be required to stock up on N95 masks for any workers who want them. 

Ordinarily the rules wouldn’t go into effect until later this month. But within minutes of the meeting adjourning, Newsom signed an executive order putting the new rules into effect Thursday.

“We can’t be the mask police. This totally contradicts the messaging that came out of the governor’s office, which was June 15, we’re opening up the economy.”

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association

That wipes out a June 3 vote to adopt workplace rules that would let workers go maskless only so long as they and all their colleagues are vaccinated. 

That idea did not go over well with the state’s business interests. How, they asked, is an employer supposed to find out which workers are not vaccinated? What if vaccinated employees, chafing at their masks, begin harassing their unvaccinated colleagues? How expensive are all these masks going to be?

“We can’t be the mask police,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association. “This totally contradicts the messaging that came out of the governor’s office, which was June 15, we’re opening up the economy.”

California’s business interests lobbied the governor directly, asking him to do an end run around the state’s workplace safety regulators and issue an executive order to “align” workplace guidelines with guidance from the state public health department and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Newsom ultimately declined to override the workplace safety board directly. But after board members reversed themselves under enormous political pressure, the governor codified the revised rules as quickly as possible.

Presumably state agencies will be abiding by the state public health guidelines?

You might think that. And that might very well be the case. But at least for now, it appears to be up to the agencies themselves.

On June 14 — just hours before the state’s reopening — the California Department of Human Resources sent an advisory to department heads across state government. State offices that serve the public directly will, like offices and stores across the state, will not be required “to inquire about a member of the public’s vaccine status.” 

Instead, the advisory read, agencies “should provide notice to all customers, guests and members of the public that face coverings are required for unvaccinated individuals. If an individual without a face covering enters a state building, the department should assume the individual is complying with the requirement.”

State employers are also being told to keep their flexible work-from-home policies in place.

The new guidance means that vaccinated Californians participating in that most pedestrian of pre-pandemic activities — waiting in line at the DMV — will no longer be required to wear a mask or have their temperatures checked before entry.

“No more temperature checks are required at DMV offices,” DMV spokesperson Anita Gore said in an emailed response. “Some capacity restrictions will ease this week.”

And there’s one more caveat: “All customers who take a behind-the-wheel driving test will be required to wear a face covering.”

People wait in line outside of the state Department of Motor Vehicles offices in Bellflower, on June 8, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

What about the state Capitol?

The halls of state government reopened on June 15, too. But befitting a deliberative body, it’ll be doing so at a slower pace. 

The building will be open to a maximum of 500 members of the public. Masks will still be required and social distancing guidelines will still be in effect. After that, the rules committees in both the Assembly and Senate will “continue to assess increasing capacity to a total of 1,000 members of the public as soon as the week of June 21st, according to a statement from legislative leaders. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, lobbyists, reporters and the general public have been permitted to enter the Capitol only under very limited and supervised conditions

Is the state still going to be in a state of emergency? 

Yes. 

Does that mean the state isn’t actually going to reopen?

No. 

When the governor was asked whether he would rescind the state of emergency proclamation that he issued in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020, Newsom — to the surprise of many and dismay of some — said that he would not.

So how can the state possibly reopen for “business as usual” when it’s simultaneously under an emergency? 

The answer might be that the definition of “state of emergency” under California law doesn’t necessarily mean “emergency” in the everyday “something is on fire” sense of the word. 

While the California Emergency Services Act does give the governor exceptionally broad powers to govern by fiat during a period of crisis, in practice the governor has evoked that power during the pandemic to administer various public health and economic relief programs and to collect federal aid. 

“Abruptly terminating the emergency would cancel all that wholesale,” said Brandon Stracener, research fellow at the California Constitution Center at UC Berkeley. “A gradual transition process that involves the Legislature is far better, and permits a rapid response to any unexpected surge in the pandemic.”

With executive orders empowered by the proclamation, Newsom has loosened regulations to allow more people to administer vaccines, banned water shut-offs on homes with delinquent utility bills, given cities the ability to freeze commercial evictions, allowed local governments and courts to conduct public hearings over Zoom and given businesses on state roads the freedom to set up parklets and other street-side services.

Alex Armstrong, 51 and his wife, Paula Armstrong, 45, prepare pick up orders during lunch hour at their Long Beach restaurant, VBurger, on June 8, 2021. “It’s been very challenging for us, but we couldn’t back out,” said Armstrong of opening mid-pandemic last year. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

The governor is hoping to extend some of the programs long past June 15 — either as long as the effects of the pandemic coursing through the state, or until the Legislature can make it permanent by statute.

On June 2, for example, the governor’s office assured local governments that they would still be allowed to hold meetings remotely. “The Governor recognizes,” cabinet secretary Ana Matosantos wrote in an open letter, “the importance of an orderly return to the ordinary conduct of public meetings of state and local agencies and boards.”

Some local governments are deciding to return somewhat to normal; San Francisco Mayor London Breed presided over four weddings at City Hall to mark its reopening.   

Republicans in the Legislature have long bristled at the governor’s unprecedented use of executive power during the pandemic, and are now attacking him leading up to an all-but-certain recall election this fall. Assemblymembers Kevin Kiley of Rocklin and James Gallagher of Yuba City and state Sen. Melissa Melendez from Riverside County demanded that the administration explain what justified the continued proclamation of the emergency. 

Some emergencies from recent wildfires and past droughts are still active, Newsom’s office notes. State law does give the Legislature the ultimate check on the governor’s emergency powers. All they need to do is pass a resolution declaring the emergency to be over. But they haven’t. And with Democrats enjoying supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate, they aren’t likely to anytime soon.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...