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L.A. County to require face masks at large outdoor events

Fans at football game
Fans cheer during the Rams vs. Chargers game Saturday at SoFi Stadium.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In the latest move aimed at impeding the spread of the coronavirus, Los Angeles County will require face coverings for anyone attending large outdoor events — such as concerts, festivals and sports games — regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.

The order, which goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, applies to outdoor events that attract crowds of more than 10,000 people. In those cases, attendees must “wear face masks at all times, except when actively eating or drinking,” the order states. That’s further defined as “the limited time during which the mask can be removed briefly to eat or drink, after which it must be immediately put back on.”

The expansive mandate means some popular pastimes will include a stark visual reminder of the pervasiveness of the pandemic: Those rooting on the boys in blue at Dodger Stadium, catching a USC or UCLA football game or taking in a show at the Hollywood Bowl will have to mask up.

The number of people being infected and falling seriously ill with COVID-19 is no longer accelerating at dramatic rates and even beginning to flatten in some areas.

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“As the highly infectious Delta variant continues to spread, wearing masks — regardless of vaccination status — indoors and in crowded settings, including at outdoor mega events, reduces the risk of being infected with and transmitting COVID-19,” the Department of Public Health said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Recent data affirm that fully vaccinated people are highly protected against severe COVID-19, the county said. But with the rise of the Delta variant, it is no longer considered rare for fully vaccinated people — while remaining generally healthy — to become infected and capable of transmitting the virus to others.

Health officials elsewhere have recommended that masks be worn universally in crowded outdoor settings.

“If you’re in crowded areas outdoors, for whatever reason, you should consider wearing a mask,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for Orange County, said at a briefing last week.

While transmission of the coronavirus is less common in outdoor settings than indoors, it is possible — think about how people can smell secondhand smoke outdoors, Chinsio-Kwong said.

“We can’t — unfortunately — smell COVID,” she said. “But it’s lingering in the air, so there is still a potential to get COVID when you’re outdoors and in close contact or at least in close proximity to others, and you’re in social events where people are spitting, singing, coughing, sneezing right in the air that you’re breathing.”

The Delta variant is at least twice as transmissible as the previous dominant strain, Alpha, and can produce a viral load up to 1,000 times greater in the upper throat, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-diseases expert, said last week. That is the reason “you have such a tremendous increase in transmissibility,” he said.

The new order puts L.A. County in familiar circumstances: having mask-related rules that go beyond those issued at the state level. For example, the county in mid-July reinstituted a requirement for universal masking in indoor public spaces. While a host of other areas have followed suit, state health officials still only recommend, rather than require, the practice.

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Testing is expected to drastically ramp up as schools around the state reopen and government and private employers impose requirements for workers.

L.A. County’s move to mandate masking in outdoor settings with more than 10,000 people is also a step beyond what the state prescribes. According to the California Department of Public Health, masks are required for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in only a handful of indoor settings, such as K-12 schools, healthcare settings and aboard public transit.

When asked for comment about L.A.’s new policy, state health officials said they are “continuously assessing and updating our guidance based on the latest science and data.”

“Masks limit the spread of the virus in the air from infected persons and protect others exposed to these particles,” the department’s statement continued. “Since the onset of the pandemic, counties have had the option to be more, but not less, restrictive.”

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The state already was strongly recommending that organizers of large outdoor events screen attendees to make sure they’re either fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recently tested negative.

“Attendees who do not verify vaccination status should be asked to wear face coverings,” state guidance says.

Unleashing a fast-spreading coronavirus variant on a half-vaccinated population can lead to a vaccine-resistant strain.

The new mask order comes as L.A. County, like the rest of the state, is combating the latest COVID-19 surge.

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Over the last week, L.A. County has reported an average of 3,362 new coronavirus cases per day, according to data compiled by The Times. That’s about 19 times the average daily case count recorded on June 15, when the region and state lifted virtually all coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and other public spaces. However, the average daily case count in L.A. County is essentially flat from last week, a sign that the spike may be starting to level off.

The rate at which COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising has also slowed. On Monday, 1,754 COVID-19 patients were in hospitals countywide — the most since late February — representing a 12% increase over the last seven days.

But that’s an improvement from the previous week, when county hospitalizations rose by 27%. And it’s a better showing than in late July, when hospitalizations were rising by more than 50% on a weekly basis.

Even if case counts begin to decline, it will likely be a few weeks before there is relief for the region’s hospitals, officials say.


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