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California will wait until June 15 to adopt new CDC mask guidelines

Customers wait to order Mexican food.
Customers wait in line to order Mexican food inside the Grand Central Market on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles on Friday.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Californians fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can go mask-free in most indoor settings starting June 15 — which also is the target date for reopening the state’s economy, officials announced Monday.

Next month’s change will bring the state into alignment with recently released guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal health officials said last week that available evidence demonstrated it was safe for fully vaccinated people to go without masks in most places, whether outdoors or inside.

That was only a recommendation, though, and the final call was largely left to state and local governments — one exception being public transportation, such as trains, buses and airplanes, and at airports and other transit hubs.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary, said state officials were opting to wait a bit before implementing the new guidelines to give residents more time to receive their vaccine shots and businesses and workers time to prepare for the change.

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“It’s in no way saying that the science or the direction by the CDC is wrong or there’s a challenge to it,” he said during a briefing Monday. “It’s really just giving ourselves across the state some additional time to have it implemented with a high degree of integrity, with a continued focus on protecting the public.”

It remains unclear how California will ensure unvaccinated individuals keep their masks on, though. And enforcement is another open question.

When it comes to the statewide mask mandate, many law enforcement agencies have favored a more educational approach, with some altogether dismissing the concept of citing or arresting scofflaws.

“We do plan to continue to work with business sectors, employers throughout the state on exactly how this can be done to ensure that those without masks are vaccinated and making sure that we continue to provide a high degree of protection to Californians,” Ghaly said.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is defending the decision to ease mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people.

California’s existing rules, last updated May 3, generally require masks to be worn in indoor settings that are outside one’s home, with exceptions, such as when it’s a nonworkplace setting and everyone there is vaccinated, or when only members of one unvaccinated household are present and all have a low risk of severe complications should they get COVID-19.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their final dose.

Unvaccinated people must also wear masks outdoors at any time they can’t maintain six feet of distance from others, and fully vaccinated people need to wear masks in crowded outdoor settings, such as live performances, parades, fairs, festivals and sports events.

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Monday’s announcement, however, doesn’t mean June 15 will mark the end of all masking. Under federal guidance, unvaccinated or partly vaccinated people are still asked to wear masks in almost all indoor settings and at most outdoor venues when interacting with people from outside their household who may not be vaccinated.

Members of a single household of unvaccinated people can go without masks indoors around visitors who are fully vaccinated.

Ghaly noted that California’s guidance was “not a ceiling on the restrictions; in some ways it’s a floor.” Individual businesses and local health jurisdictions can opt to delay the relaxation of mask requirements or, in certain instances, maintain them.

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The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s mask-wearing requirements at businesses, including restaurants and supermarkets, remain in effect at this point.

Following the CDC’s announcement, some retailers — including Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Costco — said they would no longer require fully vaccinated shoppers to don masks.

Ghaly, though, said, “We expect businesses in California to adhere to where the state is and move to implement these standards, or prepare for them, on June 15 as opposed to now.”

Officials in Los Angeles County said that, barring any about-face in the region’s progress fighting the coronavirus, they plan to align local mask rules with the state on June 15.

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“I think, barring something fundamentally different happening here in L.A. County that would really bring about cause for great concern, you can see us embracing the June 15 reopening plan,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday.

Though the state has made significant strides in terms of vaccinations, only about half of Californians have received at least one dose to this point — meaning much of the populace is not yet fully vaccinated. Children under 12 are also still not eligible for any shots.

Given that, Ferrer said that “masking, distancing and infection control remain critically important strategies at many sites and at many activities.”

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“We have come this far by taking care of each other. And to end this pandemic, we’ll need to remain willing to follow sensible safety modifications that make it possible to reduce cases and outbreaks while we increase the number of residents that are fully vaccinated,” she said. “This does include following sensible masking requirements.”

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said waiting until June 15 to further relax mask orders “gives us time to make sure we do this responsibly.”

“Vaccinations are the key to finally putting this pandemic behind us,” she said, adding that everyone should make plans to get inoculated as soon as possible.

Vaccines can be obtained without appointments at all eight county-run vaccine sites, all sites run by the city of Los Angeles and almost every mobile site. Vaccines also are available at many pharmacies. Angelenos can browse available locations at vaccinatelacounty.com.

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California’s strict mask rules have long been a hallmark of the state’s pandemic response, with officials noting that properly worn masks can stymie transmission of the coronavirus.

However, the thinking around COVID-19 has evolved throughout the pandemic.

“The science now shows that your vaccination protects you as well as being masked or better than being masked,” President Biden said during a briefing Monday. “So you can protect yourself from serious illness from COVID by getting vaccinated or wearing a mask until you’re fully vaccinated. Either way, you’re protected.”

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Still, California’s announcement appears to be in alignment with criticism of the CDC’s guidelines by some public health experts. They’ve advocated for more time for vaccinations before a widespread relaxation of mask mandates.

Times staff writer Hayley Smith contributed to this report.


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