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 face covering requirements will be going away any time soon. The county’s metrics are strict: requiring coronavirus community transmission to fall significantly below current levels; for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 to decline and stay low; and for more people to complete their vaccination series.
In addition, masks could be removed only in select indoor public settings if everyone there is fully vaccinated and there’s a process in place to verify vaccination status. Even under the new L.A. County guidelines, masking would still be required at indoor events with 1,000 or more people.
“While transmission remains substantial, we need to continue layering on protections,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
L.A. County was California’s first large jurisdiction to reinstitute public masking over the summer, because it was becoming clear that another coronavirus wave was bearing down on the recently reopened state.
California has stopped recording week-over-week declines in coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations.
In mid-July, county health officials ordered all residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of whether they’d been vaccinated against COVID-19. A month later, they expanded the masking mandate to include outdoor “mega” events with at least 10,000 attendees — such as concerts, festivals and sports games. Face coverings are also required at indoor events where 1,000 or more people are present.
Under the roadmap unveiled Tuesday, the requirement for masking at outdoor mega events and indoor public settings would be lifted only when the following four boxes are checked:
- The county has recorded three consecutive weeks at or below a moderate level of coronavirus transmission, colored yellow on maps as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
- Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations have remained low and stable, at less 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.
Indoor events and establishments would also need to ensure all employees and customers are fully vaccinated, and have a process in place to verify that.
Even when L.A. County hits these thresholds, lifting the local mask mandate will not affect requirements imposed by state officials, which require masking in indoor K-12 classrooms, or those imposed by federal officials, which mandate mask use in airports and transit stations and on public transportation, such as airplanes, buses and trains.
The trend illustrates how a group less likely to have been vaccinated in the nation’s most populous county is playing an outsize role in continuing transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant.
The county has a ways to go to meet those criteria.
According to the CDC, L.A. County is still seeing “substantial” coronavirus transmission, the second-worst category on the agency’s four-tier scale.
L.A. County is recording about 83 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the last week, CDC data show. Reaching the “moderate” tier would require that case rate to drop below 50.
And while weekly coronavirus case rates have dropped dramatically since late August, week-over-week declines essentially stopped in late October. Over the last most recent weekly period, new coronavirus cases have risen by 3% over the previous seven-day period.
L.A. County is technically close to reaching the 600-daily hospitalization threshold — on Monday, 653 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized countywide. However, hospitalizations have plateaued lately, generally floating between 600 and 700 since mid-October — much higher than the lows seen in June, when daily hospitalizations hovered between 200 and 300.
As of Thursday, 72% of county residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated, county data show. And 80% of people in that age group have already received at least one dose, indicating that the county could reach that aspirational threshold 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.
Ferrer said she can’t predict when the county might clear all these hurdles but noted they’re all interconnected.
“It’s almost impossible to think that hospitalizations will be low if cases are high,” she said. “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.”
But, she added, “we’re worried about the winter.”
Children in California ages 5 to 11 could be able to get their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine by the middle of next week.
Tuesday’s announcement makes L.A. County the latest to plot out what would need to happen to relax face-covering requirements at indoor businesses and other venues.
Los Angeles County’s criteria are similar to criteria issued by most health officers in the San Francisco Bay Area last month, which were also a model for criteria adopted by Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties.
Of the eight Bay Area counties that re-implemented a mask mandate this summer, Marin County on Monday became the first to end its local mask mandate.