LOS ANGELES (CNS) - In a major policy shift, Los Angeles County will ease its indoor mask mandate to allow people vaccinated against COVID-19 to remove face coverings indoors at establishments that verify patrons' vaccination status, health officials have confirmed.
The change will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, according to the Department of Public Health.
The new health order, however, will put the onus on businesses to ensure that all customers permitted indoors are either fully vaccinated or can provide proof of a recent negative COVID test. Even after that verification, only fully vaccinated customers will be permitted to remove masks indoors. Unvaccinated customers must continue wearing masks indoors, even after showing proof of a negative COVID test, unless they are actively eating or drinking.
The same basic rules will apply to workers at indoor establishments.
"While there are powerful tools that impede virus transmission, none are perfect, which is why we often need to use a variety of safety measures to reduce transmission," county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. "When transmission is very high, we need to create the most complete shield we can, so that's why it's important that we layer in all the protections at hand.
"As transmission drops and there is less virus circulating, some tools may afford significant protections against the very worst risks associated with COVID. Because vaccines are one of these tools, with lower rates of hospital admissions and COVID hospitalizations, it is appropriate in settings verifying vaccination or negative test status, that we transition to strongly recommending masking instead of requiring masking."
The change follows rising pressure from two members of the county Board of Supervisors for a loosening of the mask mandate to more closely align with the state, which completely dropped its indoor mask mandate last week. Los Angeles County, however, kept its mandate in place, setting parameters for ending the requirement that likely will not be met until the end of March.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger initially pushed for the county to align with the state, saying the contradictory requirements were leading to apathy and lax compliance among residents. Supervisor Janice Hahn joined Barger in that call last week, pointing to the recent Super Bowl in Inglewood as an example of people willfully ignoring the county's masking guidelines.
Hahn broke the news on Twitter Tuesday that the county planned to ease the indoor mask mandate for businesses that verify vaccination status. On Wednesday, she called the move a "step in the right direction."
"I still think that the better and less confusing approach would be to fully align with the state of California, but this is a welcome step in the right direction as our cases decline and we learn to live with this virus," she said in a statement.
Barger on Tuesday said she was "glad to hear" of the pending policy change.
"I've been calling for this all along," she wrote on Twitter. "This is another step toward living (with) COVID-19 in a balanced way. But piecemealed policies are frustrating and confusing."
The county lifted its outdoor mask mandate for large event venues, schools and child-care centers last week. Masks will continue to be required indoors at schools under a state requirement that is expected to be re- evaluated at the end of February.
The county's indoor mask mandate will remain in effect at businesses that do not verify customers' vaccination status. That mandate will not be lifted until:
- the county's level of COVID transmission falls to the "moderate" level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and remains there for two weeks; OR
- COVID vaccines have been available to residents under age 5 for at least eight weeks; AND
- no emerging COVID "variants of concern" have been identified that could spark another surge in cases
According to Ferrer, reaching the CDC's "moderate" level of transmission requires the county to have a seven-day cumulative infection rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. As of Wednesday, the county's rate was 133 per 100,000 residents.
Ferrer noted that the county's rate has been steadily declining, and at the current pace, the county would reach the "moderate" designation by March 16, meaning the indoor mask mandate would be completely lifted by March 30.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County reported another 36 COVID-related deaths on Wednesday, raising the overall pandemic death toll to 30,447.
Another 1,934 cases were also confirmed, giving the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 2,787,359. The rolling average daily rate of people testing for the virus was 2.3% as of Wednesday, up slightly from Tuesday.
According to state figures, there were 1,204 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, down from 1,276 on Tuesday. Of those patients, 269 were being treated in intensive care, down from 279 a day earlier.
According to figures released last week, 82% of eligible residents aged 5 and over have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, while 74% are fully vaccinated, and 36% are fully vaccinated and received a booster shot.
Of the county's overall 10.3 million population, 78% have had at least one dose, 70% are fully vaccinated and 34% have received a booster shot.