California’s great COVID pivot: Pandemic policies expire

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At 11:59 p.m. tonight, California’s statewide mask mandate for schools and child care centers is set to expire — marking an end to one of the state’s most consistent, and contentious, COVID policies.

Although school mask wars are far from over — numerous districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Sacramento City Unified, plan to continue requiring face coverings until further notice — the end to the statewide rule marks what is possibly California’s most decisive move yet to turn the page on the pandemic.

And with the statewide test positivity rate slipping to 1.9% on Thursday — a figure not seen since July — local governments are also racing to reverse strict pandemic policies.

Meanwhile, the federal government on Thursday extended its mask mandate for planes and public transportation — which was set to expire on March 18 — through April 18, but said it will use the extra month to prepare guidelines for lifting the rule.

The rapid shedding of pandemic precautions has raised concerns for some Californians, who point out that the virus continues to pose a serious threat to immunocompromised people and vulnerable communities. As CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reported, COVID has actually become deadlier for Black Californians since vaccines became widely available.

The quick policy reversals have also raised questions about how permanent any of these rule changes really are.

Still, that California is paring down its pandemic response was evident from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s State of the State address Tuesday night. The governor didn’t mention COVID until midway through his speech, and kept his comments on the pandemic brief. “I want to take a moment to thank all of you … for all you did these past two years to help keep us safe,” he told state lawmakers, before pivoting to the topic of homelessness.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 8,422,875 confirmed cases (+0.04% from previous day) and 86,185 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 72,069,472 vaccine doses, and 74.1% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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