L.A. County could relax mask rules in some places, official says

Vaccinated Los Angeles County residents may soon be able to go maskless in indoor settings that check for proof that they’ve received their doses, a county supervisor said Tuesday.

Details of that forthcoming shift remain scarce, and the county Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But such a change would be a potentially significant loosening of rules in a region that has been more reluctant to relax such requirements even as the Omicron wave recedes.

In a post on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, Supervisor Janice Hahn said it appears the new order would take effect Friday and allow “vaccinated people to take off their masks indoors at places that check for proof of vaccination.”

“This puts us significantly closer to aligning with the state,” she wrote.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger also teased the forthcoming update on Twitter, saying, “This is another step towards living [with] COVID-19 in a balanced way.”

But “piecemealed policies are frustrating and confusing,” added Barger, who, like Hahn, has pushed for the county to fully align its masking rules with those of the state.

This potential development doesn’t come out of left field. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week that changes along these lines were in the works.

“We also plan to consider possible options for lifting indoor masking protections earlier at sites where there are other additional layers of protection, such as vaccination verifications, and that will happen as early as next week,” she told reporters Thursday.

Just how expansive this new order could be remains to be seen. L.A. County requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination at a relative handful of businesses: indoor bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges.

The city of Los Angeles, however, has far broader rules on its books that cover a wide array of indoor retail businesses and venues — including restaurants, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, coffee shops, gyms, museums, bowling alleys and performance venues.

Also unclear is whether a business could decide of its own volition to conduct vaccine verification when it’s not required as a trade-off for allowing customers to go maskless.

At this point, L.A. County is one of the few jurisdictions in California that still requires everyone to wear masks in indoor public settings — regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.

Universal indoor masking was required statewide for about two months starting in mid-December, as health officials attempted to blunt the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus. But with the numbers of both newly reported infections and hospitalized coronavirus-positive patients falling steadily, state officials lifted that mandate last week.

However, local health departments have the option of keeping stricter rules in place, if they believe doing so is warranted. While much of California is aligned with the state’s approach, some areas — including Palm Springs and Santa Clara and Mendocino counties — have decided, like L.A., to keep their local mask rules in place for now.

To completely lift its indoor mask mandate, L.A. County must reach “moderate transmission” as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting there would mean recording fewer than 730 new coronavirus cases a day over a weekly period — a level last achieved between mid-March and mid-July.

The county remains far above that threshold at this point, but Ferrer has said she thinks the region could be positioned to relax the rule by mid- to late March.

L.A.’s approach has drawn criticism from some residents and elected officials — including Hahn, who said last week that “the longer we drag our feet on lifting the indoor mask mandate, the more out of step we get from the state, and the more trust that we lose from our public.”

Not everyone is of that same mind, however. Supervisor Holly Mitchell called masking “a very common, low-cost, minimally invasive, worldwide public health practice,” and Ferrer said her office has heard from many people who would rather keep masks in place until transmission falls further.

“We need to enjoy those times when transmission is low, and really, again, be able to take our masks off when there’s not a lot of transmission,” she said last week.

Even with the recent change at the state level, face coverings are still required for unvaccinated residents in indoor public places and for everyone in select settings, such as nursing homes, indoors at K-12 schools, and public transit.

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