UNIVERSAL CITY (CBS SF/AP) — Standing in the entrance to Universal Studios as families poured into the amusement park free of COVID restrictions, Governor Gavin Newsom marked the end of such rules Tuesday and ushered in the state’s full reopening, with the celebration punctuated by picking the winners of a $1.5 million cash giveaway to vaccinated Californians.

Newsom credited Californians for helping the state overcome the worst of the pandemic; California has administered 16 million more vaccine doses administered than the number 2 state, Texas, and is the 9th most vaccinated place in the world.

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“We are here because of your hard work,” said Newsom. “We are here because of your resilience. We’re here because of the 40 million Californians, dare I say, the moment. Many different moments over the course of the past 15 months.”

The celebration came on the same day that the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 topped 600,000, about equal to the number of Americans who died of cancer in 2019. Worldwide, the COVID-19 death toll stands at about 3.8 million.

While California was the first state to impose a lockdown and initially appeared to avoid the missteps of other states, by summer’s end a deadly winter surge overwhelmed hospitals and compelled Newsom to renew restrictions that had been eased. More people tested positive for the virus in California (3.8 million and counting) and more people died (63,000 plus) than anywhere else in the country, although the nation’s most populous state had a lower per capita death rate than most others.

Today, California has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country, below 1%. That dramatic drop in infections combined with an increasing number of vaccinated residents — over 70% of adults have had at least one dose — led Newsom to announce in April that most COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted June 15.

Beginning Tuesday, California eliminated mandatory masks, social distancing and capacity restrictions in most settings, finally moving beyond the color-tiered Blueprint for a Safer Economy. However, masks will still be required in places like public transit, airports, health care and indoor school classes.

To mark the reopening, Newsom picked 10 lucky residents who have received at least one vaccine dose to receive a cash prize of $1.5 million each. The ten winners were from the counties of Los Angeles (4), Marin, Riverside, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Stanislaus and Ventura.

The drawing was the grand finale to the nation’s largest vaccine incentive, which included $116 million in COVID-19 lottery jackpots and cash card giveaways. The state’s Vax for the Win vaccine incentive program also included six luxury vacation packages to landmark locations in the state.

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Tuesday’s reopening doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, Newsom has repeatedly stressed as an explanation for retaining his statewide emergency declaration.

“We’re not spiking the ball, but today is a day to celebrate. Today is a day to reconnect with strangers, loved ones, family members. Give people hugs, remind them that we’re not out of the woods,” said Newsom. “And also, we’re all in this together. And we’ve got a lot of work to do because I said this and I’ll close, we’re not just coming back. We’re going to come back more focused on inclusion, more focused on equity, and we’re going to come back, roaring back. California is open again, California has turned the page, and let us all celebrate this remarkable milestone.”

Some public health measures will stay for “mega events.” People attending indoor concerts, sporting events or other large gatherings for more than 5,000 people will have to show proof that they are vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID-19 test. Attendees at outdoor events with more than 10,000 people are “strongly encouraged” to do the same.

Fully vaccinated people will no longer be required to wear masks, including indoors, in most places. Those who are unvaccinated are expected to wear masks, but that won’t be enforced. Businesses have three choices: operate on an honor system; require customers to show proof of vaccination, or they can still require everyone to wear a mask.

Many question if the honor system will work, including the California Nurses Association, which said the new rules essentially call on businesses and essential workers to be the vaccination police.

“This is not a sound public health strategy,” said Sandy Rending, a president of the association, which is calling on residents to keep their masks on indoors and in crowds.

For Rita Torres, a retired university administrator in Oakland, the last 15 months were “mind boggling.” She has missed dancing at live concerts and hugging her girlfriends at weekly happy hour outings. She’s embraced having groceries delivered, a practice she once considered frivolous. Tuesday’s reopening is, for her, just another day. She will venture out cautiously.

“Deep down I want to rejoice,” she said, but she’s going to take it slow. “Because it’s kind of like, is it too soon? Will we be sorry?”

 

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