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San Francisco and Los Angeles set to reopen additional, after wildly divergent paths

LOS ANGELES – San Francisco largely beat the coronavirus pandemic by avoiding it, while Los Angeles was nearly beaten by it during a deadly winter surge.

But both emerged simultaneously on Tuesday as the first urban areas in California to hit the least restrictive corporate reopening level.

California’s iconic cities have hit infection and vaccination thresholds to allow indoor bars to welcome people back, to cheer for Major League Baseball Dodgers and Giants, and to expand capacity in restaurants, cinemas, amusement parks, gyms, and other facilities.

It’s a notable turnaround for LA considering it was the epicenter of the virus outbreak in California just a few months ago.

“It was awful,” said John Pryor on Sunday after one of his few trips to the recently reopened Angeleno Wine Co. near downtown LA. “It’s crazy that we were in the worst place in the country and now suddenly we’re the best.”

California has the lowest infection rate in the country. Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million residents and suffering a disproportionate number of the state’s 60,000 deaths, did not have a single COVID-19 death on Sunday or Monday that was likely due to an incomplete weekend reporting but still remarkable.

A total of seven of the state’s 58 counties are now in what is known as the yellow tier, which is the final stage of a phased reopening plan before an expected return to normal business operations on June 15. The other five counties are all remote areas of northern California.

On a map showing each county’s status, LA and San Francisco are yellow islands in an orange sea, the second least restrictive level. There are 39 counties in the orange row, where 60% of the population live. A dozen counties, mostly in the agricultural Central Valley, are in the second strictest category and none remain in the strictest category.

San Diego and the state’s other most populous counties, which fared better than LA during much of the pandemic, remain at least two weeks away from a wider reopening.

Signs of life are returning in streets that have emptied, shops and restaurants that have closed, and office buildings that went dark after a nationwide shutdown in March 2020.

Highways are congested, workers return to offices, and people gather for drinks and dinner, much of it still outdoors.

On Sunday, drivers circled the block in search of parking spaces in downtown LA’s vibrant Arts District, where colorful murals cover former industrial buildings. The guests filled the sidewalk tables in the sausage kitchen, ate sausages and drank Belgian and German beer.

Standing in line with people waiting for a table at Angel City Brewery, which stretched down the street, Chris Sammons said he felt it was a civic obligation to support businesses.

“It almost feels like a chore to be involved with the city,” said Sammons. “We have to bring LA back to life.”

It was the first outing for his friend Stephen Tyler, who had crouched for so long and had recently been vaccinated.

“It’s just good to be back in town, to be around people,” said Tyler. “Even that doesn’t bother me standing in line. Everything is somehow new again. “

In San Francisco, business has grown at Mixt, a popular lunch spot for salad lovers in the financial district. But it’s not pre-pandemic levels with lines spilling outdoors, said Leslie Silverglide, the chain’s co-founder and CEO. She plans to open two more stores in the city center in the coming weeks.

“It seems like people are coming back,” she said. “You are looking forward to having lunch with colleagues again.”

The fear of infection with the virus led to a sharp decline in the number of passengers in local transport. But Jason Alderman said he felt like a kid on his first day of school taking a S-Bahn to San Francisco in late March when his company reopened its headquarters.

“Instead of feeling like a hollowed-out ghost town that people were quick to leave, it felt like there were green shoots of life,” he said. “I felt a stab of energy that was there earlier.”

When the lockdown order came, an estimated 137,500 workers for San Francisco companies, including Google, Facebook and Uber, disappeared seemingly overnight.

Moving trucks brought households to more spacious suburban homes, and younger people just packed up their cars and left as they could work from anywhere. Apartment rents have plummeted, but now they’re rising.

The office vacancy rate in San Francisco is 18% compared to 10% last year, said John Chang, senior vice president at Marcus & Millichap, a commercial real estate financing and advisory firm. In Los Angeles the vacancy rate is 17.5%, compared to 13.5% in the previous year.

Perhaps more revealing, only 14% of key cards are used to enter offices in San Francisco, compared to 24% in LA. At the other end of the spectrum is Dallas, where data showed that 41% of the cards were used, reflecting the different approaches to the virus across the two states.

Chang said workers suddenly left San Francisco when the original closure order went into effect. He assumes that the return will be gradual.

At its worst, California was killing more than 500 people a day, and hospitals in the LA area were barely able to handle the overwhelming influx of patients.

In total, Los Angeles had 11,633 cases and 233 deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 population, while San Francisco had 4,095 cases and 61 deaths.

San Francisco briefly hit the Least Restrictive Level for a short period in October, the only urban area to do so before an alarming surge in cases forced a retreat. LA never got out of the most restrictive level until March.

Under the new rules, many establishments, such as Angeleno Wine Co., can double the capacity of the tasting room to 50%.

The little wine bar reopened to the public last weekend after having been closed for but two weeks in the past 13 months.

Co-owner Amy Luftig Viste said she got emotional when she reunited old friends for the first time in a year as lively conversations flowed from the tables between the barrels of stale wine and echoed off the brick walls.

“It felt like the winery had come back to life,” said Luftig Viste. “It’s a great honor to be where people come to break the seal when we get out.”

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