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‘They were bent on silencing us’: Groups clash in Orange County over mask requirements

A man jogs along Harbor Boulevard in downtown Fullerton last week after Orange County rescinded its mask order.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times )

A small group opposed to Orange County’s relaxed rules on face coverings amid the COVID-19 pandemic was met Tuesday by a much louder crowd intent on drowning out their message.

About 25 Orange County union leaders gathered on the steps of the county administration building to call on health officials to reinstate an order requiring that residents wear masks when conducting essential business.

Five speakers tried to discuss the necessity of face coverings during a gathering organized by the Orange County Labor Federation, a group representing about 90 local unions, including healthcare workers, grocery employees and first responders.

But they largely could not be heard over the roar of protesters, who crowded around them holding signs and shouting, “Hey hey, ho ho, these masks have got to go” and “Fake news has got to go” in singsong refrains.

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‘This does not diminish the importance of face coverings,’ Orange County’s new health director says in loosening COVID-19 pandemic requirements.

Protesters screamed at speakers and pushed them, mocking them for sanitizing their hands. They even tried to hit them in the head with their signs, said Luis Aleman, a project lead for the Orange County Labor Federation.

“They were bent on silencing us,” he said. “We expected this to happen, but we are going to be undeterred about our message. We saw 100 folks go out and tell the county Board of Supervisors that we don’t need masks. There’s a lot more people on the side of doctors and scientists saying that masks should be a required part of public policy.”

Gloria Alvarado, the executive director of the labor federation, said the county’s loosened mask policy has put workers and healthcare professionals at risk. Union members who work in grocery stores have told stories of being spit on and yelled at by residents who don’t want to wear a mask, she said.

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“That’s what’s painful,” she said. “A few weeks ago, we were celebrating the heroes, the frontline workers. Now they’re asking us to stand with them for safety, and we see people in the community saying no.”

The encounter emphasized the potency of mask politics, which came to a head in the county last week when the new health officer rolled back a mandatory order on face coverings within days of his predecessor’s resignation and amid pressure from the Board of Supervisors.

The battle over masks began in May, when then-county health officer Dr. Nichole Quick issued an order requiring that county residents and visitors wear cloth face coverings while in a public place, at work or visiting a business where they are unable to stay six feet apart.

The move set off a firestorm of controversy as some residents and elected officials challenged the need for the widespread use of face coverings as more businesses in the region continued to reopen.

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Quick herself became a target for criticism during county Board of Supervisors meetings, with some residents castigating her for the order. During one meeting, public speakers displayed a poster showing Quick’s photo with a Hitler mustache and swastikas.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department provided a security detail for the doctor after she received what officials deemed to be a death threat during a meeting last month. After several intense weeks defending her order, Quick resigned last week.

A day after she left, Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau was appointed as the interim health officer and was immediately peppered with questions from the Board of Supervisors about when he would lift the mask order. Two days later, he rolled back the requirement. The new order strongly recommends that people wear masks in public settings but stops short of mandating it.

“I want to be clear: This does not diminish the importance of face coverings,” Chau said Thursday. “I stand with the public health experts and believe wearing cloth face coverings helps to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community and save lives.”

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Riverside County officials voted unanimously to rescind all stay-at-home orders that went beyond Gov. Newsom’s, including a face mask requirement.

The Orange County Medical Assn. last week called Quick’s resignation a “dangerous precedent that should concern all of us” and said that “we must ... not allow bullying to drive the health recommendations that can keep us safe and healthy.”

The dispute has unfolded as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Orange County.

Health officials on Tuesday reported 248 new infections and 12 new fatalities, bringing the countywide death toll to 233. The county has seen nearly 9,000 cases of the virus over the course of the pandemic. Roughly 4,185 people have since recovered, according to county data.

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Some cities have instituted stricter mask requirements despite the county’s relaxed order. Costa Mesa and Irvine have both mandated face coverings for customers and workers in businesses when staying six feet apart isn’t possible.

Customers and workers in Laguna Beach are required to wear face coverings at all times when inside businesses. The city has noted that “any customer not wearing a face covering when entering an essential business should be refused service and asked to leave the premises.”

“We are far from out of the woods on this pandemic, and medical experts agree that face coverings will reduce the community spread of COVID-19,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “I urge residents and visitors to Laguna Beach to be smart, think of others and wear a face covering where you can’t physically distance.”

Health experts have expressed alarm at Orange County’s actions and the large rebellion over masks, saying it will make it harder to prevent new outbreaks of the coronavirus.

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“It’s the only way we get back to work — it’s to mask,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, UC San Francisco chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, said last week. “All of the data tells us ... it’s pretty clear that masking is the element that changes the trajectories of the COVID pandemic.”

Times staff writers Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.


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