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L.A. County unveils plans to drop some mask rules once COVID conditions improve

Outlining how health and safety rules could be loosened as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to wane, Los Angeles County officials said Thursday that face coverings no longer will be required in certain outdoor settings once COVID-19 hospitalizations drop, and indoor mask rules could be loosened after further gains.

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The county would enter this “post-surge” phase when coronavirus-positive hospitalizations drop below 2,500 for seven straight days, about 26% below the current figure. As of Wednesday, just under 3,400 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized countywide — though the number has dropped significantly in recent days and is down 29% from the apparent high mark of the Omicron wave, set a little more than two weeks ago, when about 4,800 were hospitalized.

It’s unlikely L.A. County will reach that goal in time for the Feb. 13 Super Bowl, but it could come relatively soon after. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the benchmark was developed in consultation with hospitals in the county, which agreed that hospitals could return to most of their customary operations with 2,500 or fewer coronavirus-positive patients.

After hitting this trigger, health officials would lift mask requirements at outdoor “mega” events with at least 5,000 attendees — such as those at the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger, SoFi and Los Angeles Memorial stadiums — as well as outdoor spaces at child-care settings and K-12 schools.

Currently, universal masking is required in both indoor and outdoor settings of school campuses in L.A. County, except when eating or drinking, and in outdoor settings where physical distancing can be reliably maintained.

Sweden’s announcement that it will ditch coronavirus restrictions follows similar moves by fellow Scandinavian countries Norway and Denmark.

Under the criteria, which Ferrer unveiled Thursday, an even wider relaxation of face covering rules is still a ways off.

For instance, masks still will be required at indoor establishments and events until L.A. County records two consecutive weeks at or below “moderate” coronavirus transmission, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Reaching that tier would require the county’s case rate to drop below 50 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over a weeklong period, and for the test positive rate to be less than 8%.

The test positivity rate had fallen under 8% Wednesday.

L.A. County is averaging about 1,100 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people every week, about one-third of the Omicron peak. The last time the county had this level of high transmission — last January — it took roughly two months for case rates to drop below 50 per 100,000 residents.

As of Thursday, only five counties nationwide were considered to have “moderate” or “low” transmission, according to the CDC. Every other county, including L.A., is considered to have “high” transmission, the worst category on the federal agency’s four-tier scale.

Even once L.A. County reaches moderate transmission, officials will not further rescind masking requirements unless there are “no emerging reports of significantly circulating new variants of concern that threaten vaccine effectiveness,” according to information Ferrer presented.

Masks also still would have to be worn where required by the state or federal government, including in healthcare settings, schools, airports and while using public transportation.

At first, it appeared Omicron might be a “great unifier,” spreading equally through the county, but then it took a turn toward lower-income communities of color.

L.A. County health officials are far from alone in looking to the future as the Omicron surge subsides. And masks have been a topic of particularly keen interest.

All of California is under a mask order that applies to indoor public spaces. That mandate is set to expire Feb. 15, and it remains to be seen whether officials will extend it further.

“Masks, especially N95s or KN95s, continue to be an effective tool to reduce the spread of COVID-19, along with getting vaccinated and boosted,” the California Department of Public Health wrote Thursday in response to an email inquiry from The Times. “Any updates to statewide guidance for face coverings will be shared with the public when finalized.”

However, some areas — such as Los Angeles County — have their own indoor mask rules that could outlast the state’s, if local health officials decide doing so is warranted.

Earlier this week, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she believes “individuals should be allowed to make an informed choice about whether to mask up or not.”

She pointed to Sunday’s NFC championship clash between the L.A. Rams and San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood — where, despite the requirement, many fans remained unmasked and some political officials were momentarily seen without theirs.

“Let’s do away with blanket COVID-19 masking policies — they don’t make a difference when they’re not consistently followed or enforced,” Barger said. “We need to trust the public to make the best personal decisions for themselves based on their unique risks and circumstances.”

Officials also announced Thursday that opponents of L.A. city rules mandating proof of vaccination at indoor restaurants and other businesses can start gathering signatures for their petition to potentially overturn the requirement.

The repeal effort, which also targets local rules requiring proof of vaccination at large outdoor events, must gather nearly 65,000 valid signatures from registered L.A. city voters to move forward.

If repeal proponents get enough signatures within the allotted time — roughly four months — the City Council must either rescind the rules or put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.

L.A.’s expansive rules, which went into effect in early November, mandate proof of full COVID-19 vaccination to enter indoor restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, coffee shops, gyms, museums, bowling alleys, performance venues and other spaces.

Even if the effort were to succeed, the city would still be bound by rules issued by the county Department of Public Health. Among those is a more limited vaccine-verification requirement that applies to indoor bars, wineries, breweries, nightclubs and lounges.

This is the latest coronavirus wave where, compared to Southern California, the Bay Area has fared relatively better, and local officials this time credit high rates of vaccination and booster shots.

In adopting its ordinance, the city of L.A. also required attendees of outdoor events with 5,000 or more people to show proof of vaccination or that they’ve recently tested negative for the coronavirus.

At the time, the requirement was stricter than the wider county public health order — which imposed such a verification requirement on outdoor events with at least 10,000 attendees. That’s no longer the case, though, as county officials lowered their threshold to 5,000 in mid-January.

After rapidly spreading across the state during the past two months, California now appears to be shaking off the worst of the Omicron wave.

Over the last week, the state has reported an average of about 48,500 new coronavirus cases per day — down significantly from the height of the latest surge, when the daily case rate fluctuated between 120,000 and 122,000, according to data compiled by The Times.

L.A. County has made similar progress, reporting an average of just under 15,900 new cases a day over the last week, down significantly from last month’s peak of about 44,000 daily cases.

Hospitalizations are starting to drop in California too. There were 12,643 coronavirus-positive people hospitalized statewide Wednesday — down 18% from the Omicron-era peak of 15,435, which was recorded Jan. 21.

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