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Wearing masks could cut California coronavirus spread in half, top health official says

Obie Figueroa, owner of Obie's Barbershop & Shave in Riverside, cuts San Dimas resident Matt Nelson's hair Tuesday
Obie Figueroa, owner of Obie’s Barbershop & Shave in Riverside, cuts San Dimas resident Matt Nelson’s hair Tuesday. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Figueroa to move his services outside.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Widespread mask wearing could cut coronavirus transmission in half, a top California health official said, as many policymakers aggressively push the importance of face coverings to help get the state’s worsening COVID-19 cases under control.

Along with other often-touted practices like regular hand-washing and maintaining physical distance, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said wearing masks “is increasingly one of those powerful tools that we see, not just at the aggregate but on the individual level to protect your communities, your local hospital system.”

“Some studies show that, if we had 80% compliance with masking, that we can reduce transmission somewhere between 50% and 60%, which is tremendous, which is exactly … what we need to see those case numbers start to come down — even if we don’t necessarily change the level of mixing that we’re having in our communities,” he said during a briefing Tuesday.

California has for weeks mandated that residents wear face coverings while in public or high-risk settings. However, the state has largely left enforcement up to local jurisdictions, some of which have shown scant interest in taking on the task.

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There are loud and persistent calls for Californians to wear masks when out in public, but so far enforcement of the mandate is modest at best.

The issue has become politicized, with some opponents alleging that the government has no right to require masks — and that any attempt to do so infringes on individual rights.

Though vocal, such mask opponents appear to be in the minority. A poll released last week showed that three out of four Americans favored requiring people to wear face coverings while outside their homes.

As coronavirus cases continue to spike statewide, more local governments — including the cities of Manhattan Beach, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Costa Mesa — have threatened to start citing and fining face-covering scofflaws.

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However, other agencies have said they are focused on education, rather than enforcement, to encourage compliance.

Ghaly said Tuesday that, while “certainly, the state has set up a structure wherein fines for not complying with the mask order are allowable, we’ve largely left that” up to local powers to decide.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has the power to withhold some relief funding for cities and counties that take actions determined to be in violation of state public health rules.

Two small cities in California’s Central Valley are learning what happens when they don’t fall in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus rules.

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Newsom recently blocked nearly $65,000 from Atwater in Merced County and more than $35,000 from Coalinga in Fresno County — and the state’s Office of Emergency Services sent letters to the cities last week notifying officials that they risked losing more money if they didn’t withdraw resolutions defying the state’s orders.

The Atwater City Council approved a resolution in May declaring a “sanctuary” for all businesses to remain open regardless of the state’s rules. The City Council in Coalinga took similar action that same month.

Ghaly said funding could potentially be jeopardized “for the lack of compliance with orders ... and criteria as it relates to local performance, including enforcement of certain things like our mask mandate.”

“Among our most important tools to help reduce transmission is wearing the mask — using it as often as we can whenever we’re in larger crowds, we’re going to the grocery store, we’re out and about on the walk in our communities,” he said. “Having that mask on or handy is a very important tool as we continue to see the evidence grow that it can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and not only protect our families and communities but help us move on the road of economic recovery, help us get closer to having more schools open across the state.”

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Times staff writer John Myers and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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