Essential California: Ditch the mask? Not so fast

People wearing masks in a store.
Zoe Meroney buys clothing from Christopher Castaneda at the Designer Sample Store in Santa Monica on May 4.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, May 14. I’m Kimi Yoshino, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

In what feels like a major turning point in the pandemic, federal health officials on Thursday issued new guidance that would allow vaccinated people to safely stop wearing masks in most places.

And while that’s welcome news — psychologically, at least — Californians shouldn’t ditch their masks just yet. Statewide rules remain in effect, and it will probably take a week or more before any substantive changes are made.


I asked Times reporter Rong-Gong Lin II, who has covered the coronavirus throughout the pandemic, to discuss the big announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Q: What’s the best and latest advice for people living in California on how to navigate state versus federal mask rules?

The best advice for today? Hold your horses. The federal guidelines are really just recommendations. State and local governments have a bigger say on how mask rules are implemented and enforced. In California, officials have not said anything officially about the CDC’s new guidelines, so all the previous mask rules remain in effect.

California’s current mask-wearing rules reflect the CDC’s previous guidance. It generally means everyone must wear masks indoors when outside your home — unless, in a setting outside of a workplace, everyone is fully vaccinated, or there are only members of one unvaccinated household present who don’t have underlying medical conditions. In outdoor settings, unvaccinated people must wear masks whenever they’re within six feet of other people; and vaccinated people must wear masks only in crowded settings, like sports games and fairs.

Q: How has this new guidance from CDC been greeted by health officials and other experts?

Some health experts welcomed the new guidance, saying the enticement of being freed from wearing masks could be just the incentive needed to encourage people to get vaccinated. Other health experts expressed concerns: What if the shedding of masks indoors in supermarkets leads some people opposed to masks and vaccines to shed their masks — possibly increasing the risk for children too young to be vaccinated? Does this mean that supermarkets will have to start checking vaccine cards of shoppers wanting to enter without wearing a mask?


Q: You are affectionately referred to at The Times as a “master of disaster,” but have we reached a point yet in the pandemic where even you are cautiously optimistic about an end in sight?

Yeah, I’m optimistic. A big turning point came in recent weeks when evidence mounted that our vaccines are effective against all the variants, whether they be from the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, India, New York or California. Yes, there can be situations in which the coronavirus or a variant breaks through the immunity provided by the vaccine, but those instances are generally very rare and leads to only mild infection, or no symptoms at all.

Secondly, the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. has been phenomenal. Dr. Monica Gandhi, a UC San Francisco infectious diseases expert, recently told me that the U.S. now has the fourth-best vaccination rate on a per capita basis in the world, only behind Israel, the U.K. and Bahrain. In California, we’re now seeing hospitalizations get down to numbers not seen since the first few weeks of the pandemic and daily reported deaths at numbers not seen since November.

L.A. County is in a good spot for now for both hopeful and heartbreaking reasons — hopeful, because vaccinations are at a decent place, and heartbreaking, because we’re benefiting from the immunity from our deadly surge from the autumn and winter.

The trick now will be to get even more people vaccinated. L.A. County will continue to be at risk if there are pockets of neighborhoods that are more unvaccinated. California needs to do more to get Latino and Black residents vaccinated at higher rates — bringing vaccine clinics into hard-hit areas and making it easy to get the shot. Young people need attention too, and so do men. Yet there’s increasing confidence that the worst is behind us in California, and hope is in the air.

If you’re looking for more info, here’s a full breakdown of the mask rules and what it means for travel, dining, shopping and more.


And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


A panel of judges pressed pause on a federal order to provide housing or shelter to all Los Angeles homeless residents on skid row by October. The judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily froze the deadline while they gather more information to determine whether the order should be in effect pending an appeal from the city and county. (Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed grants of up to $25,000 to thousands of small businesses harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. California is looking at a massive $75.7-billion budget surplus, which has allowed Newsom to offer numerous new proposals this week, including a second wave of $600 stimulus checks and transitional kindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds. (Los Angeles Times)

The University of California is considering a tuition increase. Under the proposal, California students entering next fall would pay an additional $642, on top of the current $12,570. (Los Angeles Times)


Large swaths of South L.A. are a food desert. Microfarms may be the answer. Jamiah Hargins took a front yard and turned it into a lush garden. He wants to empower underserved communities by planting small, sustainable farms in lots across L.A. (Los Angeles Times)

Jamiah Hargins among the plants in a yard
Jamiah Hargins, founder of Crop Swap LA and the urban gardener behind the Asante Microfarm.
(Antonio M. Johnson)

The pandemic wiped out the budgets of Los Angeles cultural institutions, which must now recover without the guidance and support of billionaire Eli Broad, who died last month. (New York Times)

Always check your pockets before doing the laundry. A mystery woman who bought a $26-million SuperLotto Plus ticket at a Norwalk AM-PM told the store manager she accidentally put the winning ticket in the laundry and destroyed it. She had until Thursday to claim the prize. (KTLA)

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The effort to recall Newsom could have an unintended consequence — pushing California to revisit a 110-year-old state law that governs recalls. (The Atlantic)

California’s $75.7-billion surplus could be a gift to Newsom as he fights the recall. One political scientist said: “This is better than manna from heaven.” The governor is expected to unveil his budget proposal on Friday. (San Francisco Chronicle)



California prison workers are resisting vaccination and now some inmate advocates are asking why the state won’t require it. In 30 of the state’s 35 institutions, less than half of employees are fully vaccinated and less than 3% are awaiting a second shot. (CalMatters)

A man once referred to as “the most spoiled kid in the U.S.” is apparently behind a driverless Tesla stunt in the Bay Area. Param Sharma, 25, is facing reckless driving charges after he was spotted sitting in the back seat of a Tesla while it was in self-driving mode. (SFGate)

Two photos show a man sitting in the back seat of a Tesla car with no driver.
California Highway Patrol arrested a man who they say committed reckless driving by sitting in the back seat of a self-driving car.
(California Highway Patrol)


Sacramento residents are being asked to cut their water usage by 10% as part of a voluntary conservation effort. Local water authorities said that may not be enough as the state’s drought deepens. (Sacramento Bee)

Water use in California has generally been declining thanks to mandatory reductions during past droughts. These charts show how usage has changed in recent years. (San Francisco Chronicle)


Looking for something to do this weekend to enjoy your new, fully vaccinated status? Here are a few options from The Times:


— California’s scenic Highway 1 has reopened and Big Sur sure is pretty.
Visit a coffeeshop and see how your neighborhood spot is faring as we emerge from the pandemic.
— The Monterey Bay Aquarium is reopening to the public on Saturday and some of the animals are happy about it.
— Dreaming of a European destination? Travel reporter Christopher Reynolds found 21 spots across Southern California where L.A. impersonates Europe.

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Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 72. San Diego: partly cloudy, 68. San Francisco: cloudy, 60. San Jose: partly cloudy, 73. Fresno: sunny, 95. Sacramento: mostly sunny, 88.


Today’s California memory comes from Michele Clark:

When I was 13, my parents took my two brothers (ages 15 and 8) and me to Yosemite National Park. They had honeymooned in Yosemite and were now sharing the park with us for the first time. On the day we were leaving, my brothers and I decided to hike the Mist Trail without telling our parents. We scrambled to the top of Vernal Falls and felt an incredible sense of accomplishment and freedom. It was magical. Our parents were not pleased, but our family tradition of hiking in Yosemite together continues 50 years later. Our next trip is this June.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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