SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California has cleared a path for fans to hit the stands at opening-day baseball games and return to Disneyland nearly a year after coronavirus restrictions shuttered major entertainment spots.
The state on Friday relaxed guidelines for reopening outdoor venues as a fall and winter surge seemed to be ending, with COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths plummeting and vaccination rates rising.
New public health rules would allow live concerts at stadiums and sports arenas to reopen with limited attendance April 1. Amusement parks also will be permitted to reopen in counties that have fallen from the state's purple tier — the most restrictive — to the red tier.
In all cases, park capacities will be limited, and COVID-19 safety rules such as mask-wearing requirements will apply.
The move followed a week of milestones, with California ramping up vaccinations for the poorest neighborhoods, counties reopening more businesses and Gov. Gavin Newsom passing a measure aimed at encouraging schools that have restricted students to online learning to reopen classrooms this month.
"Steady opening is consistent with the data. As cases decline, we want to return to work and school," said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, clinical professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. "Outdoor activities in particular have always been low risk. Opening these sites makes sense."
The reopening can't come too soon for Kenny King Jr., a resident of Pleasant Hill in the San Francisco Bay Area who became an annual Disneyland passholder a decade ago. He typically takes his family to the Southern California park five times a year, but the last visit was just over a year ago for his birthday.
King, 38, lives in said he's excited to return with his 8-year-old daughter, who had just started enjoying rides such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain, and to take his 2-year-old son, who was mesmerized by the lights and sounds when he visited last year.
"That's something that we just made our family thing — Disney trips," King said. "We'll sit there at the house sometimes and we'll be like 'man, I just miss Disneyland.' "
Also applauding were the thousands of workers who were laid off by Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott's Berry Farm and other big locations. Ten thousand lost their jobs alone at Disneyland and its related attractions in Orange County, not to mention the knock-on effect to nearby restaurants and hotels.
Andrea Zinder, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union that represents Disney workers, said employees are "excited to go back to work and provide Californians with a bit more magic in their lives."
Most of the major theme parks are in Southern California, which is still in the purple category. However, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties there were expecting to reopen within the next few weeks as their COVID-19 numbers fall.
Only 16 of 58 counties currently are in the red tier, and two small counties are in the orange tier. None are yet in the yellow tier, the lowest and least restrictive.
Theme parks in the red tier will be limited to 15% capacity.
Outdoor sports will be limited to 100 people in the purple tier but will increase up to 67% in the yellow tier.
The San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A's all announced they will have fans in the stands for opening day April 1. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants both start their seasons on the road and said they would announce their plans later.
Teams and event organizers can only sell tickets regionally in the purple tier. In the other tiers, teams and organizers can sell tickets to anyone living in California. No concessions will be allowed in the purple tier, while in others, concession sales will only be available at seats.
Richard Haick of San Pablo, California, already bought ticket vouchers for the Oakland A's return and hopes to take his 10-year-old son to a game soon. His son plays Little League baseball and is very excited to attend games.
"It's nice to have, even in a reduced capacity, some sense of normal," said Haick, a 45-year-old photographer.
The quicker pace of reopening is tied to a new plan to vaccinate California's most vulnerable residents. Once 2 million people across 400 ZIP codes in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods receive at least one vaccine dose, it will be easier for counties to exit the state's most restrictive tier. Once 4 million people in those neighborhoods are vaccinated, counties will be able to open up even more.
It all puts California in a drastically different position than a year ago, when Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed the statewide stay-at-home order that restricted travel, shuttered businesses and forced millions of people onto unemployment. California still has among the most severe restrictions of any state and continues to discourage out-of-state visitors.
The state is pinning its hopes of a full reopening on inoculating enough of its 40 million residents to halt widespread COVID-19 infections.
More than 10 million doses had been given only three months since the first shot was given, the Department of Public Health said.
Just over 3 million people have been fully vaccinated, or about 10% of the population 16 and older.
There are hopeful signs. This week, the seven-day average rate of positive results from tests dropped this week to 2.2%, a record low.
Although pressure has been building to reopen the economy, health officials said the changes in guidelines were a cautious and measured rather than a wholesale approach.
"We will .... keep our foot on the brake, not the gas, our eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and navigate based on data and science," said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency.
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