Orange County to don masks again as state mandate goes into effect Wednesday

Shoppers leave the Target along Harbor Boulevard on Tuesday in Costa Mesa.
Shoppers leave the Target along Harbor Boulevard on Tuesday in Costa Mesa. California is ordering a statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces that goes into effect on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Orange County residents, along with their counterparts statewide, are being told to mask up again through mid-January in an effort state officials describe as an “added layer of protection” from the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, identified by South African scientists in late November.

The state announced the mandate for mask-wearing in all indoor public spaces, irrespective of vaccine status, on Monday. The mandate goes into effect Wednesday and is tentatively set to be in place through Jan. 15.

According to data released by the Orange County Health Care Agency on Tuesday, there have been no identified cases of the variant in the county yet but the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker identifies Orange County as having “substantial” transmission of the coronavirus on a four-tier scale that ranges from “low” to “high.” California as a whole is deemed by the CDC to have a high rate of transmission.

State officials said the seven-day average case rate has increased by about 47% and hospitalizations by 14% since Thanksgiving weekend.

“As expected, we are beginning to experience a rise in cases, not only here in Orange County but statewide and nationwide, due to increased holiday gatherings and travel,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, county health agency director and county health officer, in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

“We support the state’s latest measures intended to bring additional protection to us all and our loved ones,” Chau said.

A woman carries her child at The Camp on Tuesday in Costa Mesa.
A woman carries her child at the Camp on Tuesday in Costa Mesa. California is ordering a statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces that will go into effect on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

David Souleles, head of UC Irvine’s COVID-19 response team and former deputy director of public health services for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said early evidence suggests the Omicron variant is more transmissible when compared to the Delta variant but that it is too early to say whether or not the illness will be more severe in those infected by the latter.

Much of the reaction to the new variant, Souleles thinks, comes out of concerns about its transmissibility and fear among some members of the public that current vaccines do not effectively prevent transmission. Experts believe that vaccines and boosters will protect against severe illness, however.

“Vaccines are still important and boosting is important, but there is good scientific evidence that masking is an effective tool in reducing COVID-19 transmission,” said Souleles.

“The Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health have been recommending all this time that in communities with substantial to high levels of community transmission people should be masking indoors, regardless of vaccination status because of the potential for breakthrough cases,” Souleles said. “That’s been the recommendation until now.

“I think what we’re seeing the state doing now is that, with this announcement, [California’s] doubling down on that because of what appears to be higher transmissibility and the likelihood of breakthrough cases in the fully vaccinated. It goes from a recommendation to a statewide requirement.”

Steven Rosansky, the president and chief executive of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, said he expects the mandate to impact businesses and for signs requiring masks indoors to go up in storefronts again soon, especially in larger businesses.

A Target employee collects shopping carts on Tuesday in Costa Mesa.
A Target employee collects shopping carts on Tuesday in Costa Mesa, the day before a statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces goes into effect.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“It’s kind of a one-size-fits-all strategy for the state,” said Rosansky, noting that about 70.5% of the county’s population over the age of 5 have been fully vaccinated. “I was looking at the Orange County numbers ... and interestingly, we have seen an uptick in cases but hospitalizations and ICU rates have stayed fairly constant.”

County officials said that between Dec. 8 and 13, the seven-day average case rate increased from 7.7 to 9.9 per 100,000 people and that the average number of daily coronavirus cases also grew from 250 to 322. Meanwhile, positivity rates slightly dipped from 3.4 to 3.2% and hospitalizations from 196 to 194.

Intensive care units saw occupancy grow from 59 to 63 per day.

Laguna Beach spa owner Lesli Del Rio Burt said the mask mandate won’t impact her estheticians or massage therapists, as she said it is industry standard to wear masks while working closely with clients. However, she does expect the announcement itself to cause business to slow down because of public concerns.

“Any time something like this is announced, it creates a lot of fear. I anticipate that with this just being announced everywhere on television and the media and on social media, I do anticipate business to slow down, which is very unfortunate, but it’s just the pattern we saw on the last few times,” said Burt, who opened Spa Del Rio with her family in the middle of the pandemic last year.

“This is something that I’m predicting, unfortunately. It’s the situation we’re currently in,” Burt said.

For hoteliers and the hospitality industry, Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Carla Valenzuela said the mask mandate could be potentially devastating for the same reasons.

“They were seeing people make reservations at the hotels and starting to book events; but with this notification, they’re just waiting for the calls for people to cancel,” said Valenzuela. “You’re looking at 1,000 people on a weekend at various events ... [hoteliers] are worried that the mandate might be extended.”

A man rides on his bike through the parking lot at South Coast Plaza on Tuesday in Costa Mesa.
A man wearing a mask bikes through the parking lot at South Coast Plaza on Tuesday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

State officials said there is no discussion on a stay-at-home order this winter and Souleles stressed that both Orange County and the state of California are not in the same position that they were a year ago when vaccines were just beginning to be made available to frontline workers.

“We’re seeing this [winter] surge occurring at a much better place, but it’s the behaviors that caused transmission is what’s going on here. It’s not a cyclical weather-related change,” said Souleles. “What are our patterns of behavior that change? It’s the travel, the holidays, the gatherings; it’s the fact that even though we are doing reasonably well getting vaccinated, in Orange County, when you look at the entire [population] including children over 5, only [70.5%] are fully vaccinated. When you look at the U.S., we’re about [61%]. That’s an awful lot of people still unvaccinated,” said Souleles.

“We saw the Delta surge being fueled by the unvaccinated population, even though we’ve been seeing breakthrough cases. The overwhelming majority of cases and hospitalizations … speak to the importance of vaccination and of boosting anybody who is eligible,” he added.

“This is really where our challenge is. As long as COVID has an opportunity to transmit from person to person, it has the opportunity to evolve and for variants to emerge. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here,” said Souleles. “I wish I could just say what only happens in Orange County or in California or in the United States matters, but it’s a global pandemic and what happens in South Africa or in other parts of the globe ... very quickly becomes a global issue.”

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