"We have a clear path out of this pandemic," county Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said during a press conference in San Jose on Tuesday. "For the first time, I feel optimistic. For a while, it seemed uncertain to me whether the vaccines or the variants would win. And now it looks like 'Team Vaccine' will come out on top," she said.
The county's graduation to the yellow tier comes after a long-fought battle to get as many people vaccinated as possible. As of Tuesday, 75% of residents ages 16 and older have received at least one shot; 60% are fully vaccinated, she said.
The county's average daily COVID-19 case rate on May 15 was two per 100,000 persons, a drop from eight per 100,000 one month ago.
The yellow tier in the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy allows expanded indoor capacity at restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, businesses and many other operations. Bars that don't serve food can reopen indoors with a maximum capacity of 25% or 100 people, whichever is fewer.
The yellow tier guidelines also allow expanding outdoor gatherings to 100 people or fewer; indoor gatherings, which are strongly discouraged, are permitted with modifications and at a maximum of 50% capacity; and private events can host up to 200 people outdoors. If all guests have a negative COVID-19 test result or show proof of vaccination, the capacity rises to 400 people.
Indoors gatherings of up to 200 people are allowed if all guests test negative or are fully vaccinated. Sports and live performances may have as much as 67% of capacity. Only California residents are allowed at these events and at amusement parks.
In addition, the new county health order eliminates the need for businesses to maximize the number of staff who are teleworking. Businesses and schools must continue to report positive COVID-19 cases to the county Public Health Department and quarantine workers who have the virus.
Within 14 days, employers must determine which staff are fully vaccinated and which are not. Employees who are fully vaccinated don't need to quarantine if they have close contact with COVID-19, Cody said.
She said the changes are based on new scientific evidence that found fully vaccinated people don't transmit the coronavirus. The approved COVID-19 vaccines also "offer extraordinary protection against illness and transmission," she said.
"We support the state's decision to align its policies with the CDC's (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations on June 15, giving more people time to get vaccinated and giving businesses more time to prepare for that change. If you are eligible and haven't already been vaccinated, now is the time."
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration is crafting new rules for businesses to follow based on whether an employee is vaccinated or not vaccinated. For example, a proposed rule would be that if all staff members are fully vaccinated, they wouldn't need to wear face coverings and physical distancing would be relaxed, county Counsel James Williams said.
Businesses would determine whether to require vaccinations of their employees, but the county's order doesn't mandate it, he added.
"Today is a huge milestone on our county's path out of this pandemic," Cody said. "Because so many members of our community are now fully vaccinated, COVID-19 case rates are at some of the lowest levels we've seen since the start of the pandemic. We are now confident that vaccination not only prevents people from getting sick, it also prevents people from spreading COVID-19."
With the recent approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, the county has made it available to that age group at all of its vaccination sites and is also working with pediatricians to ensure they can offer the vaccinations.
A complete list of what's allowed under the yellow tier can be found at cdph.ca.gov/programs.