COVID-19 in California: State Responds to Spiraling New Infection Rates

COVID-19 Update

California Reopened When Rates of Infections Were Low and Vaccinations High

On June 11, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom rescinded his March 19, 2020 “stay-at-home” order and many other restrictions his administration imposed in response to COVID-19.

Newsom expressed optimism when lifting his first-in-the-nation stay-at-home order, noting that nearly 40 million vaccinations had been administered in the state, and new infection rates were just 2.1 per 100,000 residents per day and had been at 3.0 or lower since mid-May. But he also expressed caution, saying he would be “vigilant to protect public health and safety as the pandemic persists.”

Infection Rates Were Rising Within Weeks

Newsom’s caution was well-founded. By June 30, the highly transmissible Delta variant had driven new infections to 3.8 per 100,000 cases, nearly double the 2.1 rate of June 11, and the rate continued to rise. By August 11, the rate was 25.4, more than 12 times the June 11 rate.

State Has Responded With Limited New Restrictions

As new infection rates have risen, the Newsom Administration has responded with targeted efforts aimed at checking the spread of the virus.

On July 26, 2021, the Newsom Administration issued its first COVID-19-specific public health order since June 11. The July order requires health care facilities to verify the vaccination status of their workers and to require weekly testing for any unvaccinated workers.

The state public health officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, explained, “California is currently experiencing the fastest increase in COVID-19 cases during the entire pandemic with 11.2 new cases per 100,000 people per day,” and “[a]dditional statewide facility-directed measures [must be taken] to protect particularly vulnerable populations, and ensure a sufficient, consistent supply of workers in high-risk health care and congregate settings.”

On August 5, 2021, two more public health orders were issued as new infections climbed to 18.3 cases per 100,000 people per day.

  1. Vaccinations Required. One order requires the vaccination of health care workers to protect particularly vulnerable populations and to help ensure there are enough workers available to keep important health care facilities operating.
  2. Proof of Vaccination/Testing Required. The other order requires that visitors to health care facilities provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result that was obtained within 72 hours prior to their visit. 

Priority Given to Safety of K–12 Students Returning to School

On August 11, 2021, as new COVID-19 cases continued to rise faster than at any prior time during the entire pandemic, the Newsom Administration issued a schools-focused public health order similar to its July health workforce orders. The order requires that the vaccination status of K–12 school workers be verified and requires regular testing of unvaccinated workers. Governor Newsom said the order is needed to minimize the risk of infection to students, particularly given that the Delta variant is two times more contagious than the original virus and students are already at greater risk of infection (because children under age 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated and just over 40% of those ages 12–17 were fully vaccinated as of August 10).

Hospitalizations Continue to Rise Despite Availability of Vaccinations

On August 16, 2021, the Newsom Administration reported that COVID-19 hospitalizations were up over 700% in the past two months as new infection rates rose. The administration acted to help ensure that hospital beds will be available where needed by issuing a public health order permitting hospitals greater flexibility in transferring COVID-19 patients when needed to make beds available for others.

Counties Are Reinstituting Masking Requirements

In response to the rising new case numbers, many of the state’s population centers have instituted mask mandates, including the counties of Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco. San Francisco was one of seven Bay Area counties that jointly announced the new mandates. In the Central Valley and Southern California, however, Los Angeles and Sacramento stand almost alone in reinstituting their mask mandates.

  • Los Angeles requires all individuals (over age 2) to wear masks in all indoor public settings, venues, gatherings, and public and private businesses, regardless of their vaccination status. The county also requires individuals at outdoor “mega events” to wear masks, except when eating or drinking. Mega events are outdoor events that are open to the public and have 10,000 or more attendees, such as concerts, festivals, parades and sporting events.
  • San Francisco requires masks in indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.
  • Other Bay Area counties joined with San Francisco in reinstating mask mandates, including Alameda, Santa Clara and Marin.
  • Sacramento also issued new masking requirements.
  • Other heavily populated California counties such as Orange and San Diego are recommending masks be worn, but not mandating them.

Many less-populated counties appear to be relying on the California Department of Public Health’s existing rules requiring all Californians to wear masks in the following situations, regardless of vaccination status:

  • On public transit and in transit hubs
  • In K–12 schools
  • In health care settings
  • In state and local correctional facilities and detention centers
  • In homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers

Local Governments Move to Impose Vaccination Requirements

In potentially the most far-reaching local action, the Los Angeles City Council voted overwhelmingly on Thursday, August 12, 2021, to prepare an ordinance mandating that individuals have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before entering indoor private businesses such as restaurants, bars, gyms, shops, movie theaters and other venues.

Similarly, San Francisco announced a new Health Officer Order requiring both employees and customers of indoor venues to have proof of vaccination beginning on August 20, 2021, for patrons and on October 13, 2021, for employees.

Both Los Angeles and San Francisco have already mandated vaccinations or routine testing for employees. In July, Los Angeles announced that all city employees will be required to either provide proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing as of October 1, 2021. And on August 18, 2021, the Los Angeles City Council voted to adopt an ordinance requiring all City employees to be fully vaccinated by October 5, 2021, with limited health and religious exceptions. San Francisco also issued an order requiring city staff to be vaccinated—by September 15, 2021, for employees in “high-risk” settings and by October 13, 2021, for all others.

Some smaller cities, including Cathedral City and Palm Springs are also requiring vaccinations for indoor activities.

Private Businesses Impose Their Own Mandates

Many private businesses throughout California have imposed mask and/or vaccine mandates. For example, Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google have both announced that workers will be required to show proof of vaccination in order to return to their offices.

What’s Next

Given the rise in new case rates and some private sector companies’ decision to impose their own mask mandates and vaccination requirements, it is likely that Californians will continue to see new requirements in the public and private sectors until new case rates begin to drop.

Manatt will continue to monitor developments related to COVID-19 rules and regulations in California.



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