With Virus Rates Low, Californians Eager to Return to Events

Chase Center in San Francisco.
NBC Bay Area

For the past year, Emily Redenbach has had to watch her beloved Los Angeles Kings hockey team play on television, without the camaraderie of fellow season ticket holders who have become her friends.

“It’s not the same, but that’s the closest I could get to having hockey,” said Redenbach, 35.

But starting April 15, Redenbach and other loyal sports fans may be able to return to a large arena to cheer on their team after California lifts its ban on live indoor events. The Kings, as well as the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco and the Los Angeles Lakers, have announced that they are working with health officials to welcome back fans.

The return of live events and performances and larger indoor private gatherings indoors comes as health officials warn of the possibility of another surge, but it offers a glimmer of normalcy for residents after more than a year of fluctuating restrictions. More than 58,000 people in California have died from the virus, and several states are seeing surges in cases driven by new virus variants.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration believes it is safe to reopen now given the low case rates and increasing pace of vaccinations. California workers have administered nearly 20 million doses as of Monday.

The guidelines adopted by California's public health department allow more paying audience members indoors if they show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. State officials will also allow vaccinated-only sections where people do not have to maintain social distancing but must wear masks.

But not all event venues are jumping to reopen, largely due to logistical and financial restrictions not shared by professional sports teams that have been playing games without fans all along.

The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is among those that won’t host live audiences anytime soon, said spokesman Kevin Kopjak. He said the theater needs much more time to secure hundreds of artists, artisans and theater workers for a production, saying the financials don't pencil out.

State rules also raise questions of inequity and privacy amid a fierce national debate over the use of “vaccine passports” that would grant inoculated people more opportunity to move about freely.

“The challenge with a lot of the vaccine passports and proof issues is going to be the devil’s in the details: How do you authenticate that someone truly is vaccinated?” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at University of California-San Francisco.

Christina Ramirez, a biostatistics professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who specializes in infectious diseases, said she doesn't want passports forced on communities of color that still struggle for equitable access to medical care. She's also not sure how to factor in people who have some immunity because they've already had the virus.

“You’re going to de facto segregate and marginalize people who have a history of being segregated and marginalized,” she said.

President Joe Biden’s administration has said the federal government is devising regulations for how and when such passports can be used. California Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón said Friday the state will follow the federal government’s lead, but vaccinations won’t be required for essential services.

The new rules will are being phased in through California’s four-tier system, which allows activities in each county depending on how widespread the virus is there. In the most restrictive purple tier, indoor concerts, sporting events and theater productions won’t be allowed.

In the red tier, venues of up to 1,500 people can operate at 10% and or up to 25% if all guests provide evidence of vaccination or a negative result of a test taken within 72 hours. Venues of 1,501 people or more can operate at 20% capacity in the red tier, but must show proof of vaccination or a negative test. Capacity increases for tiers where the virus is less widespread.

As for whether an event is safe to attend, Ramirez said she would factor in a venue's mitigation measures, as well as the nature of the event, whether people are coming from places with higher virus spread and how closely people are packed together.

“The higher the number of people, the higher the probability that at least one of them is infected,” she said. ”The louder your voice is, the more respiratory droplets you emit, so cheering and singing are all riskier events."

But Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at University of California, Irvine, said once people are fully vaccinated and have waited the recommended two weeks, there isn’t really a reason to hold back from participating in activities. Those who aren’t vaccinated, he said, should refrain.

“The idea you are going to just wait until it’s ‘safe’ — your next concert may be in 2025 depending on what your threshold is," he said.


Taxin reported from Orange County.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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