BY KIRSTEN CHUBA, CHRIS GARDNER | HollywoodReporter.Com
Troy Warren for CNT
Political leaders and locals celebrated a milestone day in the fight against COVID-19 as capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines were lifted, allowing for the first real taste of normalcy since March of 2020.
Posted up behind a podium boasting the slogan “California Roars Back,” California Governor Gavin Newsom braved a Southern California heatwave Tuesday morning to mark the most positive milestone yet in the COVID-19 pandemic: a return to normal life.
“We are here,” Newsom said against the backdrop of the iconic silver globe outside Universal Studios Hollywood where he was joined by canons, confetti and a cadre of characters from films like Transformers, Minions, Trolls and Jurassic Park. “June 15 — we’ve turned the page to move beyond capacity limits, to move beyond these color codings, to move beyond social distancing and physical distancing, and, yes, as you saw me walk up to the stage, move beyond mask coverings.”
After 15 months of pandemic restrictions, Tuesday marked a full reopening of California’s economy with the lifting of capacity limits, physical and social distancing requirements and the elimination of masks for fully vaccinated residents (with exceptions including public transportation and schools). Although no longer state-mandated, businesses can still choose to keep some restrictions in place or require proof of vaccination, as some patrons are likely to continue to wear masks regardless of shot status.
The news was cause for celebration, particularly among public officials like Newsom and L.A. County Department of Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer, who spoke at a separate yet equally momentous press conference where she was joined by county leaders including Board of Supervisors chair Hilda Solis. Ferrer explained how the milestone reopening offered a sense of relief and optimism. “There were many times during this past year when it was hard to believe that we would ever feel these feelings again,” Ferrer explained.
She then recalled how the peak of the pandemic saw 277 deaths per day, a strained hospital system and more than 15,000 new cases per day. L.A. County remained a COVID-19 hot spot for many months with the country’s highest case count and most fatalities, with a surge that started in November and continued through February. As of Tuesday, the area counted 1.25 million cases and 24,433 deaths compared to statewide numbers of 3.8 million cases and 63,149 deaths. The same day California embraced normalcy, U.S. officials announced that the country had surpassed 600,000 deaths total.
“So many of us are still contending with the emotional, financial and physical fallout of this terrible time. We share in your heartbreak and we know that the path to recovery will be a very difficult one for so many. After 16 months of enormous upheaval and loss, we can now share in a genuine sense of hope,” said Ferrer.
That progresss has been buoyed by strong vaccine distribution with nearly 70 percent of L.A. residents reporting that they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. New cases have also dropped to a low 150 per day while daily deaths have also dropped to low single digits. “Today parts of our lives will go back to something that feels almost normal. We can and we should feel joy while recognizing and honoring the immense collective effort that brought us to the point where we can now do this,” said Ferrer.
Elsewhere, however, the hustle and bustle of life in Los Angeles looked in some ways much like it has in recent months. The Hollywood Reporter surveyed the scene at popular locations across the city, including The Grove, the Westfield Century City, and the heart of the 90210 on Rodeo and Canon Drives.
Not everything had changed. Signage outside restaurants and retail still instructed customers and clients to wear masks prior to entering and the majority of pedestrians on the street were still wearing facial coverings with some exceptions.
Early morning in West Hollywood, at Brick, a boutique gym, a fitness class of about 15 people was in session with not a person wearing a mask. A couple doors west of there, at Training Mate, a group fitness studio, a woman was asked if she needed to wear and mask and was told, “No, you do not. Show us your face.” An employee said that the studio is operating on an honor system for vaccinated people to go without masks and will be going back to increase capacity in its classes later this week.
By midday at popular outdoor retail destination The Grove, about 50 percent of people walking outside were wearing masks. A guard at the Apple store gave a thumbs up when asked if it was OK to enter without a mask, while other stores stated masks were required (Barnes & Noble; Vince). Other signs said that masks are preferred or recommended (Dylan’s Candy Shop: “Please Be Sweet. Masks are Preferred Inside”), while some stores had no sign at all (Charlotte Tilbury).
At Century City’s Westfield mall, masks were still very much in use, with most patrons masked both in and outside of stores despite the fact that the mall is largely outdoors. COVID-19 precautions were still listed throughout, with frequent reminders from billboards and posted signage to mask up and social distance. Two Bloomingdales employees said they hadn’t noticed much of a difference in business or behavior, and said although a handful of shoppers were without masks that had been the case prior to Tuesday as well, and they were not allowed to enforce mask-wearing. Most stores still had mask signage up on their doors, with the exception of a few spots like H&M, which announced that “non-vaccinated customers are encouraged to wear a mask for their own safety” and “All H&M employees will continue to wear face mask coverings.”
An Equinox employee in Century City told THR that she’d fielded a flurry of calls Tuesday morning from gym-goers asking if masks were needed, and was met with celebration when callers heard of the lifted restrictions. She did note, though, that Equinox employees are still required to wear masks for the time being and the gym is not yet operating at full capacity.
The AMC Century City 15, one of L.A.’s most popular theaters, was bustling Tuesday with a steady stream of moviegoers filing in starting with the 3 p.m. showings. Though earlier in the day the cinema had had mask signs posted, by the day’s showtimes the signs were gone and replaced with a small note at the ticket counter that read, “Masks are no longer required for fully vaccinated guests.” Friends Mimi Evans and Isabella Quiroz, who came out to see Peter Rabbit 2, though, were not yet ready to take that step despite getting the vaccine, bringing along N95 masks for the screening.
“We know movie theaters are contained giant spaces with other people. We still feel we should protect ourselves and others,” said Evans. “I don’t really trust people to be truthful about whether they’re vaccinated. It’s definitely going to be a few months before I feel comfortable to not wear a mask.” While there were a few people going mask-less inside the theater, most still put them on before entering the AMC lobby.
In addition to lifting or easing mask requirements, there are no more theater capacity restrictions, representing a huge boost for the box office recovery and distraught exhibitors. Seats no longer have to be blocked off, and there is no need for a headcount to ensure that the number of people in a given auditorium has exceeded the limit.
Out on Hollywood Boulevard, things were more open than other spots in the city, with many going mask-less as they walked down the Walk of Fame and stopped for pictures with performers. As summer and tourist season returns, there were lines for bus tours again, a far cry from what the strip looked like last year, when one Starline Tours employee remembered two-hour windows when no one would walk by. Now, she says, they’re still working with the city on mask guidance but are requiring them for now, and are “expecting a lot of people” in the coming weeks now that the state has reopened. Down the street, wax museum Madame Tussauds was seeing a “nice uptick in traffic,” said general manager Ed Bell, and had lifted masked mandates but was still recommending visitors wear them. “We’re hoping that this news will make people more comfortable to come out to businesses like ours.” Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre is one of the few in the city still requiring mask-wearing, and was virtually empty on Tuesday afternoon.
Over in Brentwood, a server outside Japanese restaurant Takao was spotted taking the temperature of al fresco diners just before noon. Down the block, a late morning class was wrapping up at popular cycling chain Soul Cycle, which reopened some indoor locations across the city today for the first time since early 2020. Two of those riders were Halle Detrixhe and Maeve Gilleran. The friends said the indoor return proved to be a positive (and positively sweaty) experience. “It felt great,” Gilleran said. “I’ve been doing outside classes for the last month but to be inside, it was different. A lot more sweat. They made it super special and told us, ‘Don’t push yourselves too hard if you haven’t been at this for 15 months. Take it easy and if you’re not 100 percent, you’re not at 100 percent yet. We’re just glad to have you back.’”
Detrixhe said the class was high-energy and everyone was happy to be there. As for the pair, they reported joy in seeing restrictions lifted across the city and while they both plan to wear masks while grocery shopping and navigating retail spaces, they are eager to hit up restaurants and maybe even a bar to toast their respective pandemic birthdays. Said Detrixhe: “We both turned 21 while under quarantine so it will be nice to actually celebrate and we can do that now that everything is open.”
The easing of guidelines marked an “incredible milestone for travel and tourism, and one we have been eagerly anticipating,” noted Los Angeles Tourism president and CEO Adam Burke, who was among the speakers during a Tuesday morning webinar put on by the organization to mark the day’s news and provide facts and context to recovery efforts citywide. “It’s a day we’ve been hearing about for some time now and we’ve finally arrived.”
Residents are encouraged to remain vigilant with Burke adding that face masks will still be required on public transportation like planes and trains. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will likely be required for attendance at such events as concerts, sporting events, conventions, meetings and festivals. “L.A.’s comeback is well underway and our city of angels is fully open for business travel and tourism is ready to lead the way for our region’s economic recovery,” Burke said, adding that L.A. Tourism partnered with Shepard Fairey of Studio Number One in a first-time collaboration with House Industries for a new logo for Los Angeles.
He also touched on the economic devastation to the area, explaining how the pandemic crushed 2020 and put a stop to 10 straight years of travel-related economic growth. He cited a $15 billion decline in tourism revenue and a nearly $2 billion sum in lost visitor tax revenue. California was among the first states in the country to enforce strict pandemic lock downs — rolled out March 19, 2020, under “Safer at Home” directives that called on residents to hunker down while only essential businesses were permitted to stay open. Mask mandates have been in effect since June 18, 2020.
A rebound is expected. Becca Douten, deputy executive director of Public and Government Affairs for Los Angeles World Airports, said that California and Los Angeles rank in the top seven of most desired domestic destinations for prospective travelers in 2021. Traffic is up at LAX: Douten said that the June 1-13 time frame saw an average of 72,437 passengers screened per day. International travel remains an area of concern as vaccine rollout in many parts of the world has been slow and pales in comparison to U.S. rollout.
Once tourists, conventions and events fully return to Los Angeles, there will be more options for places to stay. Jamie Simpson, vp of global communications for Los Angeles Tourism, reported on Tuesday’s webinar that 17 new hotels are expected to come online in the city this year alone. She singled out such properties as Venice V Hotel, Thompson Hotel, Godfrey Hotel, Downtown L.A. Proper, Fairmont Century Plaza and The Shay.
Other attractions expected to draw crowds and visitors are the newly-opened SoFi Stadium, the Academy Museum, Warner Bros. revamped Studio Tour, Hollywood Bowl’s new season kicking off July 3, Smorgasburg L.A. on July 4, and next year’s Super Bowl on Feb. 13. Said Burke, “We have absolutely started to turn the corner.”
Additional reporting by Degen Pener and Pamela McClintock