When will L.A. County lift its mask mandate? Here’s what needs to happen

Visitors stand under a mural at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. The county has set criteria for when indoor and outdoor locations can lift mask mandates.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles County has unveiled the criteria necessary to retire the public mask mandate it imposed months ago to combat the latest COVID-19 surge.

But that doesn’t mean the requirements will be going away soon. The county’s criteria are strict: They require coronavirus community transmission to fall significantly below current levels, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 to decline and stay low and more people to complete their vaccination series. Even then, masks could be removed only in select indoor public settings if everyone present is fully vaccinated.

“While transmission remains substantial, we need to continue layering on protections,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

L.A. County this summer became California’s first jurisdiction to reinstitute a local public masking order, as it was becoming clear that another coronavirus surge was bearing down on the reopened state.

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In mid-July, county health officials ordered residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of whether they’d been vaccinated against COVID-19. A month later, the officials expanded the mask mandate to include outdoor “mega” gatherings of at least 10,000 people, such as concerts, festivals and sporting events.

Under the guidelines unveiled Tuesday, the requirement for masking at outdoor mega events and indoor public settings will be lifted only when four criteria are met:

  • The county has recorded three consecutive weeks at or below a “moderate” level of coronavirus transmission (yellow on maps by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention);
  • Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations remain at fewer than 600 for three straight weeks;
  • At least 80% of residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated; and
  • There are no reports of significantly circulating variants of concern that could threaten vaccine efficacy.

For indoor public settings with fewer than 1,000 people, businesses or hosts would be allowed to lift indoor mask requirements only if they ensure that all employees and customers are fully vaccinated and have a process in place to verify that. The mask mandate would still apply to indoor events with more than 1,000 people.

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Even if L.A. County reaches hits its thresholds and lifts its mandate, state requirements of masking in indoor K-12 classrooms, healthcare settings, shelters, jails and prisons will remain in effect, as will federally mandated mask use in airports and transit stations and on public transportation, such as airplanes, buses and trains.

California also requires unvaccinated individuals statewide to wear masks in indoor public settings and businesses; vaccinated patrons are encouraged, but not required, to do so.

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L.A. County has a ways to go to meet its criteria.

According to the CDC, the county’s coronavirus transmission is “substantial,” the second-worst of four classifications.

L.A. County recorded about 83 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the last week, CDC data show. Reaching the “moderate” tier would require that rate to drop below 50, a threshold L.A. County achieved between mid-March and early July.

While case rates have dropped dramatically since late August, week-over-week declines essentially stopped in late October. During the most recent week measured, new coronavirus cases rose 3% over the previous seven days.

L.A. County is close to reaching the 600-daily hospitalization threshold: On Monday, there were 653 COVID-19 patients in hospitals. However, hospitalizations have plateaued at 600 to 700 since mid-October — much higher than in June, when they were at 200 to 300.

As of Thursday, 72% of L.A. residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated, county data show. In that age group, 80% have received at least one dose and could reach full vaccination in a matter of weeks.

Two of the available COVID-19 vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — require two doses, administered weeks apart. A third offering, from Johnson & Johnson, entails one shot.

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Ferrer said she can’t predict when the county might clear the hurdles but noted that they’re all interconnected.

“It’s almost impossible to think that hospitalizations will be low if cases are high,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Also, if we have a new variant of concern, we’re going to see that in our case numbers as well. So they do align with each other, and they do influence each other.” Additionally, she said, “we’re worried about the winter.”

L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked whether it might make sense to allow businesses to relax indoor masking rules if they require that everyone be vaccinated.

“We’re talking about incentives, trying to get people vaccinated, trying to get businesses to comply,” she said. “And you know, when I talk to businesses, that’s one of their frustrations is the masking requirement.”

Ferrer said such a strategy would be “too risky.”

“I wouldn’t want us to be taking off our masks indoors when we’re at substantial transmission and we’re headed into the winter,” she said. “This, for me, would be a risk that I wouldn’t encourage any of us to take.”

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Ferrer said indoor masking is one of the least disruptive and more effective tools the county has to tamp down on coronavirus transmission while allowing businesses to operate at close to normalcy.

“Masking is powerful enough that, hopefully, it doesn’t require us to put back in any of the more onerous safety measures that really interrupted a lot of the businesses from their customary practices,” she said.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl drew parallels to another business requirement: No shoes, no shirt, no service.

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“I don’t argue, ‘Well, I’ve never gotten any foot disease, so I don’t have to wear any shoes,’ ” she said. “I mean, there is sort of a constant risk that we have to take into account.

“I think we’re kind of getting used to wearing these masks and even feeling safer,” she added. “We can disagree — some people hate it — but it just seems like not such a big deal when we still need to be protected.”

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L.A. County’s criteria for lifting its mask mandate are similar to those issued last month by most health officers in the San Francisco Bay Area, which were also a model for Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties.

Of the eight Bay Area counties that reimplemented a mask mandate this summer, Marin on Monday became the first to lift it.

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