Officials stress mask rules at Super Bowl LVI

NFL and SoFi Stadium officials joined with local leaders to reiterate that masks will be required for fans at the Super Bowl in Inglewood to help protect against Omicron transmission.

The mask requirement in outdoor stadiums, an order issued in L.A. County last August, was criticized as unnecessary this week by a member of the Board of Supervisors, Kathryn Barger, who represents a northern part of the county, after photos emerged of many fans maskless in their seats at Sunday’s Rams game.

But at a press conference Wednesday, several local elected officials backed the mask mandate, including Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. and L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, whose district includes SoFi Stadium. Guests at the Feb. 13 game will also need to show proof they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the coronavirus prior to entry, a requirement that has been in place for large outdoor events in the county since October.

While coronavirus case rates are declining, they still remain high. L.A. County is averaging about 16,000 new coronavirus cases a day — a decline from the Omicron peak of 44,000 cases a day in January — but still the same level as the worst moment of last winter’s devastating surge, according to data compiled by The Times. Death rates remain at the highest levels in more than 10 months, averaging about 60 to 70 COVID-19 deaths a day.

And while COVID-19 hospitalizations are declining, hospitals in Southern California remain under strain, health officials said.

“Masking is a modest requirement that works,” said Mitchell, chair of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. “Masking doesn’t affect a business’ bottom line, and it certainly will not affect the attendance or our enjoyment of the game. L.A. County will stay the course. As it’s been doing, the county of L.A. will develop and implement thoughtful and medically informed plans to relax masking and other COVID-19 requirements when the surge is over.”

While the Omicron surge first emerged in affluent communities, the highest coronavirus case rates have since been documented in lower-income communities of color, such as nearby South Los Angeles.

Mitchell said wearing masks at the game will help “keep ourselves and our community of fellow attendees at the stadium safer.” Keeping people safer from COVID-19 is an important issue, she said, noting that the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital is under such stress that patients need to be seen in tents “because of the disproportionate number of people in that community — workers, Black and brown, poor — who have contracted this virus.”

Per county requirements, fans have to wear masks regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19. The mandate applies at all times unless someone is eating or drinking, which “refers to the limited time during which the mask can be briefly removed to eat or drink, after which it must be immediately put back on.”

Spectators will be provided with KN95 masks, and there will be signage and staff members on hand to remind people of the rules.

Given the enormity of the event, however, some have questioned how the county or the NFL can reasonably expect to enforce certain health measures. Scenes from last Sunday — when throngs of unmasked fans watched the L.A. Rams defeat the San Francisco 49ers to punch their ticket to the championship — further fueled such speculation, as did the emergence of pictures showing political figures posing for photographs without face coverings while at the game.

Anyone who has tuned into a Rams home game this season has probably noticed mask-wearing in the stands has been spotty, despite the county requirement, although some fans say the order is better enforced at the concession stands for food and drinks.

While those images may paint an unflattering picture, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted that there’s been robust compliance with health orders throughout the county — including at businesses where masks are required.

I know it looks like there’s this just rampant disregard for public health measures, but every piece of data we have shows that, actually, in most places, most people are doing the right thing,” she said.

“What we’re trying to accomplish here,” she added, “is to get people to understand why it’s important to wear a mask and to get businesses to take responsibility for protecting workers and employees and customers.”

Still, officials acknowledged individual choices, rather than heavy-handed enforcement, will play a role in how many people comply with the rules.

“All of this is about our personal responsibility to do the right thing and what we’re asked,” said Russ Simons, senior advisor of facilities for SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park. “And it’s not a game of gotcha, ‘Oh, I got away, I got to go from here to there without my mask.’ It’s about personal responsibility and the commitment to keeping everybody safe.”

That commitment, officials said, applies not just to individual patrons, but those around them — including workers at the stadium.

Verifying vaccination and testing status seems to be the easier hill to climb. A special entrance system set up for the game will incorporate that requirement.

“We built not only the queue lines, we built a verification zone where we will handle that piece, then our security checkpoints and then our ticket checkpoint,” said Jon Barker, the NFL head of live event operations. “So it gives us really the luxury to be able to design it specifically for the ability to verify vaccination status as people come through.”

Ferrer has also been questioned on whether it’s safe to host the Super Bowl. At a town hall meeting last week, she said safety measures like masks and vaccination-or-test requirements add a level of safety while allowing the county to largely resume normal life.

“L.A. County has been open for months. And we are a destination location: We have hundreds of thousands of people coming to L.A. every single day from all across the world to enjoy everything that L.A. has to offer,” Ferrer said last week. “But we also expect when people come here … they need to follow the public health safety requirements when they’re here.”

“People are often asking us: what does it look like to live with COVID?” Ferrer said. “That’s what we’re doing right now — we’re living with COVID. We’re doing our very best to add in layers of protection so that much of what we love to do is possible — as long as we layer in protections.”

Butts, the Inglewood mayor, said “this is going to be one of the safest, most glamorous Super Bowls in the history of Super Bowls. … So we want everybody to wear your mask. Get vaccinated if you’re so inclined. And come enjoy the new city of Inglewood,” Butts said.

Because of how easily the still-dominant Omicron variant has been shown to spread, health officials say wearing masks, particularly well-fitting, higher-quality ones, provides a vital layer of protection in crowded situations.

That’s especially the case in settings where people are shouting, chanting or singing, activities that are a given with a title on the line.

While any mask is better than none, health officials and experts have said residents should upgrade looser-fitting or cloth masks into N95, KN95 or KF94 masks. Barring that, placing a cloth mask over a surgical mask would also provide more protection than a surgical mask alone.

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