California and other large states are loosening covid restrictions just as scientists warn that more-contagious variants of the virus are beginning to take hold in the U.S. and the vaccine rollout struggles.

With a two-month spike in cases beginning to subside, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, is lifting the state’s stay-at-home order. New York, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts also are easing restrictions.

The shift comes as new covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining. Still, the new variants — including one in the U.K., another in California and a Brazilian one first identified in the U.S. on Monday in Minnesota — are setting off alarms, and may be more transmissible. The U.S. has administered only about 23.4 million vaccines for a population of about 331 million.

“We’re just asking to go backwards by easing restrictions without focusing on achieving herd immunity with vaccination,” said Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “It’s very fragile.”

After almost a year of grueling lockdown, and losses both human and economic, governors and mayors are under intense pressure to balance safety and the desires of many constituents.

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On Monday, Dara Maleki was just about to start returning the tents he had rented to cover the patios at his Pizza Press restaurants in Southern California when he heard that Newsom was lifting the stay-at-home order. Maleki plans to resume outdoor dining at his Anaheim-based chain as soon as he gets the word from local authorities.

“We’ve been in survival mode for so many months,” he said. “Hopefully now we can enter recovery mode.”

Newsom on Monday lifted restrictions statewide that effectively shut thousands of businesses including restaurants, bars, hair salons and movie theaters for the past two months.

The closures prompted strident protests, lawsuits and even a movement to recall Newsom, a Democrat who many believe wants to run for president. Now, those businesses will be able to reopen, subject to capacity limits and other rules. The state made the call after seeing declines in new case loads and hospitalizations.

“Today, we can start to see some real light at the end of the tunnel as it relates to case numbers,” Newsom said at a news conference.

The trajectory of covid-19 in California, which imposed strict public-health restrictions early but continued to see rising infections, has long baffled experts. Those types of “abstinence-only” measures may have driven people to gather privately, spreading the virus, said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious diseases physician.

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“People are frustrated with the orders in California. I think they need to recalibrate how they’re doing this,” he said. “Anyone who has been following this pandemic should not have this misconception that lifting the stay-at-home order means the virus is over.”

Indeed, the California Department of Public Health said this month that scientists had identified a variant of the coronavirus, known as L452R, in many parts of the state. Officials said they weren’t yet sure whether the variant was more transmissible, but noted that it had been found at large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, which county health officer Sara Cody called a “red flag.”

The rollback of regulations could complicate efforts by scientists to determine the impact the new strains are having on cases, said Rita Burke, an assistant professor of preventive clinical medicine at the University of Southern California.

Anyone who has been following this pandemic should not have this misconception that lifting the stay-at-home order means the virus is over.”
— Dr. Amesh Adalja, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

The state has mass vaccine sites, but as is true everywhere, supplies of shots are scant. The emergence of new variants makes it even more important to take a “no-holds-barred approach to get the vaccine into people’s arms. Looking at those long lines at Dodger Stadium is really not how this should be going,” Adalja said.

In addition to California, the nation’s most populous state, others are beginning to ease restrictions, including the Democratic strongholds of New York, Illinois and Massachusetts.

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Last week, officials in Illinois said restaurants in Chicago and its suburbs could open for indoor dining. Those rules had been in place since October.

“The risk of a resurgence in Illinois, particularly with extremely contagious new variants is serious,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D, said in a press conference. “Our ability to have limited indoor restaurant service and to restart youth sports could be cut short if we aren’t extremely careful.”

Michigan will allow limited indoor dining at restaurants and bars starting Feb. 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D, said Friday. “Our actions saved our hospitals from shutting down, our actions saved lives,” she said during a news conference in Lansing.

On Monday, Massachusetts lifted a curfew that forced restaurants, movie theaters and many other businesses to close by 9:30 p.m., and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, said elective surgeries can resume in Buffalo’s Erie County, where he spoke Monday. More adjustments will be made over the next couple of days.

“We saw that holiday spike, and then you see it start to trail off,” Cuomo said.

Other states are more cautious. Despite an easing of its case load, Nevada extended limits on group gatherings so that they are in effect for casinos during the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.

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In Colorado, there are no immediate plans to reduce rules, even though the case numbers have been declining for two weeks, according to Rachel Herlihy, a state epidemiologist.

“It’s going to probably be until at least this summer that we really need to continue all of the strategies that we’re using,” she said during an online news briefing.

That will tax the patience of Americans, no matter how much sense it makes medically. Many have grown tired of the rules and have begun to resist. Rescue California, one of the group’s organizing a recall of Newsom, said it has helped gather 1.25 million signatures, more than 80% of those needed to initiate an election challenge to the governor, who is two years into his second term.

“The only data/metric that forced this change had nothing to do with ‘science’ — it was the number of signatures collected on the recall petitions against him,” Carl DeMaio, a Republican activist and former San Diego city councilman, said in an email to supporters Monday.

Newsom, at the news conference, said the state’s decision was based on the case numbers and factors including declining hospitalization and test positivity rates, which has led to projections that intensive-care availability will improve. In Southern California, where the surge in cases effectively filled ICUs, capacity is now expected to be 33% in four weeks. The state is now averaging 30,300 new cases per day over a 14-day period, down from more than 40,000 in late December.

The governor said politics was in no way involved, calling it “complete utter nonsense.”

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He said the state had tripled the number of people it vaccinates daily to 131,000 by Jan. 15. Plans to accelerate the process include a new age-based alert system the state will be rolling out.

Still, as businesses like the Pizza Press began to set up their tables again, many in the medical community still wonder whether California and other states are moving too fast.

“With each surge, we have opened up things too quickly when the pandemic seems to have crested,” said John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. “I think we are doing the same this time.”