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Don’t throw away that mask just yet. California won’t lift COVID-19 rules for another month

Signage inside a Target advertises a mask mandate
Signage inside a Target store advertises the requirement that customers must wear face coverings on Monday in Los Angeles.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

There was growing pushback against immediately lifting COVID-19 mask rules for vaccinated people Monday, with California deciding it would keep its policies in place for another month as a rising number of experts over the weekend said it was prudent for everyone to stay masked indoors for a bit more time.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director surprised many last week when she said available evidence demonstrated it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to go without masks in most places. That prompted some big retailers like Walmart and Costco to say they were relaxing mask rules in states and regions that allowed them to do so.

But California health officials said the state’s current mask rules will remain in place until June 15 — which is also the target date for fully reopening the state’s economy. Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary, said state officials opted to wait a bit before aligning with the new guidelines to give residents more time to receive their vaccine shots and businesses and workers time to prepare for the change.

“It’s in no way saying that the science or the direction by the CDC is wrong or there’s a challenge to it,” Ghaly 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.”

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Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, welcomed California’s move.

“I like it. It’s true: other states are moving much faster,” Jha said in a tweet. “But a few more weeks — until folks who became eligible in late April are fully vaccinated — feels like the right move.”

Some people are still concerned about going without masks even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer guidance relaxing the rules.

L.A. County health officials said they were now informing major retailers that had relaxed the mask guidelines nationwide that they must continue to follow California’s stricter rules.

The move came after the Trader Joe’s in South Pasadena posted a sign in front of its store on Friday that gave permission for vaccinated shoppers to enter its market without a mask — a policy that violates California’s existing mask orders.

“This is going to be pretty easy for businesses and customers, residents and visitors to understand — because there’s one standard for the whole state. And it requires that we continue to wear our masks until June 15,” said Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s public health director.

Trader Joe’s, Walmart and other chains must continue to follow L.A. County mask rules despite new CDC guidelines. L.A. rules are expected to end June 15 when California moves to a full reopening of the economy.

The CDC’s guidance was only a recommendation, 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.

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States that still have mask mandates have made differing decisions in recent days. New Jersey and Hawaii will retain indoor mask orders in public spaces, with their governors saying they wanted more of their residents to get vaccinated.

“Just under 60% of our community is still not fully vaccinated,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige told CNN. “The best, most effective mask mandate is when everyone is wearing a mask, and because we can’t identify those who are vaccinated from those who are not, I just felt it was appropriate we continue the mask mandate at this time.”

Meanwhile, officials in New York and Pennsylvania announced they would allow fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in most settings. “All the arrows are now pointed in the right direction. So let’s get back to life,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Still other places were left in limbo. Washington state will also drop its mask order for vaccinated people, but Seattle’s King County left open the possibility it would retain an indoor mask mandate.

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Some experts feared that prematurely lifting mask rules for vaccinated people would make it more socially acceptable for unvaccinated people to disregard the rules and stop wearing masks in indoor public areas. That could increase risk of coronavirus transmission among other unvaccinated people, such as children too young to be inoculated and people with compromised immune systems.

Some public health experts have also feared a surge fueled by maskless unvaccinated people could again disproportionately hurt people of color. Latino and Black residents of L.A. County are less likely to have received a vaccine, and officials say more time is needed to get more members of these vulnerable communities the shot.

In L.A. County, just 38% of Black and 43% of Latino residents ages 16 and above have been vaccinated with at least one shot; meanwhile, 61% of white, 68% of Asian American and 58% of Native American residents in the same age group are at least partly vaccinated.

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.

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Some people still have had difficulty arranging to get the vaccine. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that unvaccinated Latino adults are twice as likely as white adults to say they want the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. But large shares of Latino adults — especially those who are low income, uninsured and potentially undocumented — say they’re concerned about having to pay for the vaccine (even though it’s free), having trouble traveling to a vaccine clinic, or feel they’re not able to miss work should they need a day off to deal with the vaccine’s side effects.

Ferrer, L.A. County’s public health director, warned it’s not worth the risk of moving too quickly to lift mask mandates for vaccinated people.

This “is a risk that we think is unnecessary for us to take, and it could in fact delay our progress on the recovery journey,” Ferrer said. “This is a sensible path forward that allows us time to get more people fully vaccinated.”

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California’s existing rules, last updated May 3, generally require masks to be worn in indoor settings that are outside one’s home. There are exceptions, though, such as when it’s a non-workplace 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.

Under California’s existing rules, unvaccinated people must also wear masks outdoors at any time they can’t maintain distance from others, and fully vaccinated people still need to wear masks in crowded outdoor settings, such as live performances, parades, fairs, festivals and sports events.

Confusion over national recommendations and state orders was evident in recent days. One maskless person published a video of his argument with a Costco supervisor in L.A. County, insisting he should be allowed in the store without wearing a mask; the supervisor said California and L.A. County orders required that all shoppers here wear masks.

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Costco, Walmart and Trader Joe’s were among the first national chain stores to say they would lift mask requirements for vaccinated shoppers; some chains clarified that they would only do so where allowed under local health orders. More recently, Home Depot, Starbucks and Target said they would do the same.

The new CDC guidance relaxing mask use caught many off guard in California, where officials are not ready to lift mask mandates. Opinion was largely divided: Some people said the move felt premature and could hurt front-line workers. Others said it was about time since COVID-19 case rates are declining.

The CDC’s guidance has generated much debate.

Some, like L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, praised the state’s decision to wait until June 15 to further relax mask orders — saying the delay “gives us time to make sure we do this responsibly.”

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

But her colleague, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, said she shares “the frustration expressed by many individuals regarding inconsistencies at the federal, state and local levels,” as “the data continue to show a substantially decreased spread in Los Angeles County, which would indicate that we should align with CDC masking recommendations based on the science.”

Though some experts greeted the CDC’s guidance, others have said it’s better to be on the safe side for now.

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“I strongly recommend to others that when at an indoor place where both vaccinated and unvaccinated people mix, such as grocery stores, that they wear a mask too,” tweeted Dr. Carlos del Rio, infectious diseases expert and executive associate dean at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Added Jha: “Here’s my personal practice for now: Continue indoor masking in public places like grocery stores until more are vaccinated, infection numbers are down.”

“Add me to this list as well,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of UC San Francisco’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, responded in a tweet. “Wearing my mask indoors just awhile longer until the rates [of vaccinated people] are higher.”

Leading scientists and doctors have generally agreed that vaccinated people should feel very safe that they have good protection against COVID-19.

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Some experts who welcomed the CDC’s guidelines said it appears the agency’s messaging may have resulted in unintended consequences.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco, tweeted that the CDC was trying to communicate the effectiveness of vaccines after being criticized for a previously overcautious approach, but the guidance that came out Thursday “likely backfired.”

An approach that may end up working best, Gandhi said, will be for local public health authorities to lift mask mandates when vaccination rates reach a certain threshold and daily coronavirus case rates also hit a goal.


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