How will new CDC mask guidelines affect Los Angeles County?

While many Americans are no longer advised to wear masks in public indoor settings under new federal health guidance unveiled Friday, Los Angeles County residents are still being recommended to wear masks by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new guidelines from the CDC will ease recommendations for when the general public should wear masks in indoor public settings. Officials didn’t specify the precise metrics that would shape that determination during a briefing, but, according to information posted online, it appears that masking would still be recommended in L.A. County.

The county’s rules were always unlikely to change immediately, even if they could. Public health officials have said they planned to review the latest guidance and present some options for a new masking policy at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. They said they would then consult with business and labor groups, meaning a new masking plan could become clearer later next week.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer pledged to “carefully review the proposed goals, the metrics and the strategies in relation to local conditions and priorities; determine how to best align and integrate relevant metrics and strategies in our own mitigation plans.”

Ferrer said Thursday that she didn’t expect the county to suddenly decide to relax L.A. County rules later Friday, a mere hours after the CDC’s new guidelines were released. She added that she thinks “it would be a lot to ask us to move immediately with changes because we do know that CDC is going to ask everyone to look at local conditions as they make moves.”

“We have to look at it,” she said.

In a call with reporters, CDC officials outlined a new three-level system that will define counties as having low, medium or high levels of community transmission. The assignment will be based on several factors, including new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and hospital capacity.

Under the new CDC system, universal indoor masking would be recommended only in areas with high levels of transmission. Besides L.A. County, other areas in California with high levels of transmission include San Diego, Fresno and Kern counties.

For places where transmission is in the medium level, the agency recommends that higher-risk people, such as those with weakened immune systems, might want to wear a mask. Counties in the medium category include Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Clara and Sacramento.

San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties are considered to have low transmission.

The CDC also is easing its recommendations for wearing masks in indoor K-12 settings. Until now, the agency recommended universal masking in schools, no matter what the level of coronavirus transmission. Now, the CDC will recommend universal masking in schools only in communities with a high level of transmission.

The CDC order requiring mask use on public transportation, including planes, remains intact.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, said people who feel more comfortable wearing masks should continue doing so.

Greta Massett of the CDC’s COVID-19 Response Incident Management Team said 23% of U.S. counties are classified as having low community transmission, 40% as medium and 37% as high. That means the CDC still recommends universal indoor masking in more than a third of counties nationwide.

L.A. County, unlike most of California, has maintained a local universal indoor mask mandate even after the statewide order was lifted last week.

Rather than pinning the relaxation of the requirement to a specific date, L.A. County officials said they were aligned with the CDC’s previous guidance — which recommended everyone, regardless of vaccination status, mask up in areas with elevated coronavirus transmission.

Before Friday, the CDC had recommended easing indoor mask requirements only in areas with “moderate” transmission, which the agency defines as 50 or more cases a week for every 100,000 residents. In L.A. County, that averages about 730 cases per day over a weekly period.

While the most recent COVID-19 wave has been receding rapidly, L.A. County remains a ways off from that threshold.

According to a Times analysis, the county has reported an average of about 2,400 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week, a drop of nearly 40% from the previous week. The week before that, about 7,500 cases a day were reported. And prior to that, 16,000 cases a day were tallied.

Based on current trends, county health officials forecast that the mask mandate could be lifted in mid-to-late March.

But recent moves at the federal, state and even local level have made the county a distinct outlier in its approach.

Officials in the cities of Long Beach and Pasadena, which have their own independent health departments, said this week they are moving to align their local requirements with the state’s more-permissive rules, rather than the county’s.

Palm Springs also will no longer require masks in many indoor settings starting Monday.

The only other jurisdiction aside from L.A. that is keeping a local mask mandate on its books appears to be Mendocino County.

In Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous, officials set a lower bar for relaxing indoor masking: an average of 550 new coronavirus cases per day over a weeklong period. The county has since dipped below that marker and could lift its masking requirement as soon as March 2.

Under state and federal guidance, masks are still required for unvaccinated residents indoors and for everyone in certain places, such as nursing homes, indoors at K-12 schools or while aboard public transit.

Masks also remain mandatory in L.A. County courthouses, according to a statement from Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor.

L.A. County officials have maintained that their rules are not etched in stone, and that they can and will alter their approach as conditions warrant.

“Our collective efforts to vaccinate, boost, mask and follow other safety measures are bringing us closer to pre-surge levels,” Ferrer said. “As we move forward and continue to see improvements associated with less transmission, we will implement sensible changes to our mitigation strategies that allow us to use the most appropriate tools for protecting residents and workers from the damaging effects of COVID.”

Amid a continued decline in the number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized countywide, the region last week relaxed its rules to allow people to go without face coverings outdoors at K-12 schools and childcare facilities, as well as in exterior areas of mega events, such as those at the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium, SoFi Stadium and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

And under a new health order that went into effect Friday, fully vaccinated individuals can ditch their masks indoors at establishments that screen the inoculation status of visitors and patrons.

In Los Angeles County, proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required at indoor bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges. Such rules are far more expansive in the city of L.A., covering additional indoor spaces such as restaurants, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, coffee shops, gyms, museums, bowling alleys and performance venues.

Mayor Eric Garcetti confirmed Friday that the city will ease indoor masking requirements at those businesses that require vaccination proof, saying, “This moment gives us a renewed sense of optimism about the direction of this pandemic.”

“We are able to take these steps today because of our collective determination and sacrifice, and we should take pride in that,” he said in a statement. “But we’re not out of the woods, and we know that as the pandemic evolves, our collective fate will increasingly depend on our individual choices and actions. Now is the time to strengthen our resolve to protect the health and safety of everyone around us.”

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