California lifted blanket "stay-at-home" orders across the US state Monday, paving the way for activities such as outdoor dining to return even in worst-hit regions as the pandemic's strain on hospitals begins to ease.
The western state has suffered one of the nation's worst winter Covid spikes, with hospital intensive care units overwhelmed, ambulances backed up for hours at a time, and cases more than doubling since December to over three million.
Two research groups in California have identified a homegrown strain that they believe was driving the Golden State's year-end surge in infections.
Restrictive measures were brought in seven weeks ago for some 20 million people across southern and central California, but Governor Gavin Newsom said the state had now "battled our way through the most challenging surge."
"Effective immediately, all the regions in the state of California... are no longer in the 'stay-at-home' order," said Newsom.
The decision to end the sweeping regional bans on gatherings and "non-essential" activities such as outdoor dining and indoor nail and hair salons is based on forecasts for intensive care unit capacities improving across all California regions.
Latest ICU capacity in southern California is currently at zero percent, but with daily new cases falling sharply, projections show more than 33 percent will be available within four weeks.
Covid ICU admissions fell almost 10 percent in the past two weeks, while vaccination rates tripled in the first half of January.
"California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we've been hoping for," state health secretary Mark Ghaly wrote in a statement unveiling the order.
"Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front-line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared."
Still, pre-existing restrictions based on individual California counties' conditions will return.
That means bans will remain on dozens of activities including bars, indoor dining and live sport crowds in most places.
Counties can also choose to impose stricter rules than the state requires, meaning some severely affected regions may even opt to retain current restrictions.
But Los Angeles officials said the hard-hit county will align with state guidelines following the lifting of the stay-at-home order, including a resumption of outdoor dining by the end of the week.
California has recorded 3.14 million Covid-19 cases, including more than 37,000 deaths.
The state of 40 million people has delivered 2.44 million vaccine doses so far, having converted sites including Disneyland and the Dodger baseball stadium in Los Angeles into mass inoculation centers.