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California Offers ‘Dream Vacation’ Giveaways to Spur Vaccinations, Tourism on Eve of Reopening

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Visitors leave Disneyland on the day of the park's reopening on April 30, 2021. The Anaheim park had been closed since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

California will offer six “dream vacation” incentives to spur more people to get coronavirus vaccinations and boost the state's hobbled tourism industry, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, the day before the state lifts most pandemic restrictions.

The promotion is the latest in a string of game show-style drawings recently announced by Newsom to increase vaccination rates and, in this case, help jump-start the Golden State's travel and tourism industry, which has been in virtual hibernation for more than a year because of stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions.

The tourism industry “had a sledgehammer taken to it,” Newsom said at a press briefing Monday morning inside San Francisco's historic Ferry Building, a major tourist attraction.

Tourism revenues nose-dived from a record $145 billion in 2019 to $65 billion last year as California enacted some of the nation's toughest pandemic restrictions.

But Newsom said it's now safe to travel in California again, as the state of nearly 40 million people boasts among the nation's lowest virus transmission rates, with close to half of all residents fully vaccinated.

“It was because of the health-first focus that this state is not poised to recover. It's poised ... to come roaring back,” Newsom said, emphasizing that from both health and economic standpoints, California weathered the pandemic better than many conservative states with much looser restrictions.

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“Florida actually had worse economic outcome over the course of the last year than the state of California. So did Texas,” he said, calling out two of California's conservative rivals, while touting his state's record budget surplus.

“But we're here primarily because California has excelled in another category, and that's vaccinations,” Newsom said.

In San Francisco, 80% of eligible city residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, and nearly 70% are fully vaccinated, becoming the first major American city to hit that threshold, Mayor London Breed said Monday.

The city by the bay is the site of one of the six vacation packages offered by various donors through Visit California, the state's nonprofit travel promotion arm.

Others destinations include Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Diego and a luxury hotel in Palm Springs. Newsom hastily added that he has never visited the luxury hotel, a caveat that comes after he was widely criticized for patronizing an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant during the pandemic.

“And you can’t think of California without thinking about the Ritz Carlton down in Palm Springs. At least I’m told the Ritz Carlton down in Palm Springs is spectacular,” he said.

Some of the goodies in the various packages — each available for up to four people — include floor seats at a Los Angeles Lakers game, as well as tickets to Disneyland, Legoland, SeaWorld and a symphony, Newsom said. Each winner also gets $2,000 in travel money, he added.

“With all due respect, eat your heart out the rest of the United States,” he said “There's no state in America that has more in terms of experiences, more in terms of its culinary options than the great state of California.”

All Californians 18 and older who are at least partially vaccinated are eligible for the drawing.

Newsom is also proposing $95 million in state funding to help a hospitality and tourism sector that at one point during the pandemic, he said, lost nearly half its 1.2 million jobs. The investment could speed the resumption of more than 300,000 jobs within a year, he projected.

Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, predicted it will take another four years for California's travel industry to fully recover, particularly because of the anticipated slow comeback of business and convention travel. She urged people to get the word out that California is fully open again and welcoming back visitors.

Because California had some the nation's tightest and longest-lasting pandemic restrictions, the state “is perceived to be less destination ready than the rest of the United States, in particular our friends in Florida,” she said. “And that's the hard work we have to do.”

Meanwhile, Newsom said he expects California's workplace regulators this week to approve rules that allow employees to shed their masks at work if they “self-attest” that they have been fully vaccinated, “consistent with the CDC guidelines.”

Those rules, to be considered Thursday by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, would be a reversal of the board's decision earlier this month to retain masking requirements at most work sites. Newsom said once the board lifts those restrictions, he will issue an executive order putting the rules into effect immediately, bypassing the normal 10-day legal review.

The methods of employer verification were not spelled out in the board's draft regulations released Friday.

But the board's staff confirmed Monday that employers would have options, including requiring workers to show proof of vaccination; requiring everyone to remain masked, vaccinated or not; or allowing employees to self-attest to their vaccination status, with the employer keeping a record of who does so.

“Self-attestation is a necessary option to help businesses — particularly small businesses — avoid getting into the murky waters of attempting to verify vaccinations when workers may have lost their vaccine cards,” said Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce.

Monday's new prize announcement is part of a weeks-long effort to entice residents who are still reluctant to get the vaccine.

It comes on the eve of Newsom's plans to lift his stay-at-home order and end most restrictions on businesses. As of midnight, almost all capacity restrictions and masking rules placed on everything from restaurants to ballparks will be lifted. To mark the occasion, Newsom on Tuesday said he plans to oversee a drawing in which 10 vaccinated people will win $1.5 million each.

He said the state began offering the incentives after California and the nation started seeing a decline in the number of initial vaccinations. But since the prize drawings in California began, he said, administered doses have increased 13.8% each week.

"We are confident these vaccine incentives have worked. That’s why we want to continue in that spirit,” he said.

The drawings that have taken place so far, all streamed online, resemble game shows, officiated by Newsom as the slick-backed host giving out 30 $50,000 prizes. The state is now also giving out $50 gift cards to 2 million people who get vaccinated.

Newsom, a Democrat, faces a likely recall election this fall largely driven by his handling of the pandemic, and his Republican challengers have contended that the prizes are a wasteful taxpayer-paid way for him to boost his popularity. However, other governors of both political parties have launched similar incentives.

To aid those who must prove they have been vaccinated, Newsom said the state later this week will also unveil a way for people to show “an electronic version of your paper version” of the vaccine verification card.

“It’s not a passport, it’s not a requirement,” he said, providing little in the way of details. “It's just the ability now to have an electronic version of that paper version. And so you'll hear more about that in the next couple of days.”

This post includes reporting from the Associated Press' Don Thompson and KQED's Matthew Green.

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