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Do I need to wear a mask indoors in my community? Rules vary across California

A sign at a Los Angeles Target store tells shoppers that masks are required.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

One-third of California counties are now urging even fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the state.

In some areas, the renewed call for indoor face coverings applies to everyone. In at least one county, health officials say those who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, or live with someone who is, should consider masking up.

And in Los Angeles County, indoor masking isn’t voluntary — it’s now the law.

The proliferation of new mask recommendations illustrates how rapidly the pandemic trajectory has shifted in the aftermath of California’s June 15 reopening, and how officials are increasingly turning to a familiar tool in hopes of blunting transmission.

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About 60% of Californians now live in a county that either recommends or requires indoor masking for all individuals, including those vaccinated for COVID-19.

Here is a rundown:

Six more California counties are urging masks in indoor public spaces amid upticks in coronavirus cases and circulation of the Delta variant.

Mandatory masks

Of California’s 58 counties, only L.A. County has mandated that masks be worn indoors.

The cities of Pasadena and Long Beach, which have their own independent health departments, have said they will follow suit.

L.A. County was at the forefront of the new push for wider indoor masking — recommending in late June that all residents wear masks in public indoor spaces, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Since then, 18 more counties have issued similar guidance, with many citing the proliferation of the highly infectious Delta variant as a reason.

Just this week, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, Santa Cruz, Ventura, Lake and San Joaquin joined the list of counties asking even fully vaccinated individuals to wear face coverings as a precaution while inside places including grocery stores, movie theaters and retail outlets.

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Most of the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Sacramento, Yolo and Fresno counties, also now recommend that people wear masks indoors.

Stanislaus County issued a more targeted recommendation, saying, “If you or someone in your household is 65 or older, has risk factors for COVID-19, or has any conditions or medications that lower your immune system, thereby lowering your chances of developing immunity from the vaccine, Public Health recommends wearing a mask indoors.”

L.A. County officials say with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing, they hope reinstituting masking as a social norm will help reduce disease transmission.

Other areas

So far, Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside counties have not announced any new recommendations on indoor mask wearing.

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What’s the reasoning for masking again?

Health officials have characterized the renewed calls for indoor masking as an effective but unobtrusive tactic to tamp down coronavirus transmission, which has risen rapidly following California’s June 15 reopening.

Over the last week, California has reported an average of 3,671 new cases per day — more than quadruple the number from a month ago.

People who have been vaccinated have strong protection against even the Delta variant, but those without vaccinations are at highest risk.

“This [masking] just levels the playing field. It does provide protection for everyone,” L.A. County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said last week.

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Another increasingly pressing issue is the continued circulation of the Delta variant — which is believed to be twice as transmissible as the conventional coronavirus strains.

Since its presence was confirmed in California in April, Delta has rapidly become the state’s dominant strain, accounting for 48.8% of all cases analyzed in June.

One-third of California counties are now urging even fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors as coronavirus cases continue to rise.

Enforcement

Technically, those who violate the new L.A. County mask rules, or any other provisions included in the county’s latest health order, can be cited or fined.

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Practically speaking, many health and law enforcement officials favor educating residents about the rules and urging adherence rather than writing tickets.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his department “will not expend our limited resources and instead ask for voluntary compliance” with the new rules.

County officials also have indicated they won’t take a punitive approach to bare-faced scofflaws, with Davis saying, “We will continue to go out and educate. It’s not something we really want to have to do, in terms of giving citations.”

The Los Angeles Police Department is urging residents to adhere to the new order, which went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday after a drastic increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the last few weeks.

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“The department continues to ask all Angelenos to abide by the mask mandate, recognizing that the recent resurgence is troubling,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said Monday. “These hospitalizations and this loss of life are real. Our personnel will wear masks in all public settings, as well as in office settings, and I’m asking all Angelenos to comply with it.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many health and law enforcement officials have favored educating residents about masking rules and urging adherence rather than writing tickets.

What’s next?

Officials hope that masking up in indoor public areas will slow the spread.

It will take weeks to know for sure. L.A. County officials have said they could impose more restrictions if conditions worsen but have not provided details.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that the state is “committed to addressing this latest increase in the number of new cases” but also “committed not to imposing new restrictions.”

Despite the decisions being made at the local level, both the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that fully vaccinated people can go without masks in most situations, given the high level of protection the shots provide.


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