‘We get to see people’s smiles’: L.A. County marks first day without indoor mask mandate

Ana Arriaga spent her shift at a Larchmont Village juice shop admiring the return of a small joy she’d learned to live without.

“Finally,” she said, “we get to see people’s smiles.”

It was midday Friday — half a day since L.A. County health officials had lifted the mask mandate for many indoor locations across the region, including shops, gyms and movie theaters — and Arriaga, a manager at Kreation Organic Juicery, couldn’t help but feel that this was a reassuring step toward a state of normalcy she had long been craving.

L.A. County’s decision to lift the mandate came a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its latest data showing that levels of coronavirus in the region had dropped into the “low” category. On Friday, L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez introduced a proposal to stop requiring many indoor businesses, including restaurants, gyms and bars, to check whether customers are vaccinated, instead making the practice voluntary.

For many Angelenos, the news about the proposed change on checking vaccine cards and the end of the mandate for indoor masking in most settings, regardless of a person’s vaccination status, brought a feeling of distinct relief. Some said they thought the step was long overdue and others felt simultaneously excited and a bit worried about the virus.

And yet, many others across the region said they planned to keep wearing a mask indoors for a variety of reasons: to continue protecting themselves and immunocompromised loved ones from getting COVID-19, because it would take a while to break their well-worn routine, and because they’ve come to enjoy the anonymity of partially shielding their face in public.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and associate professor of public health at UC Irvine, said he thought L.A. County’s decision was reasonable given the lower infection levels, but said the public should be prepared to return to masking in the future.

“Put the masks away,” he said, “but put them in a drawer, not the garbage.”

It’s basically guaranteed, Noymer said, that there will be another surge of infections driven by either a new variant, waning immunity or the combination of both, and because respiratory illnesses tend to spike in the winter, he said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see case counts rise again later this year.

But until then, he said, it makes sense to give people a break from masking — it’s a critical way, he said, to earn some good will with the public and to ensure that there’s not too big of a disconnect between the rules and the reality that many people and businesses had already started to loosen their practices and enforcement.

Masks are still mandated on public transportation under a federal order, and a similar state order still requires that masks be worn inside healthcare facilities, homeless shelters, jails and prisons. The state order requiring that masks be worn at indoor K-12 schools and child-care facilities will expire in a week, at which point school operators can decide whether to require them.

In an interview Friday, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that she knows how difficult the pandemic has been for people, especially with the changing rules and the seemingly endless revisions of what experts know about the virus.

“I think what really was hardest on everybody was all of the uncertainty and the need to constantly shift the guidance. And the majority of people did really, really good about hanging in there,” she said.

Although the mandate has been lifted, Ferrer still recommends that people wear masks indoors and said she supports individual businesses that choose to continue requiring customers and employees to wear masks.

And on Friday, it seemed many businesses were working out their own interpretations of the newly rescinded mandate.

Outside a vintage shop in Highland Park, the sign about masking had been repurposed — the “required” had been crossed out and someone had handwritten a note reading, “optional, but appreciated.”

At Las Ranas Cafe in West Adams, there were three signs plastered on the front door: one saying face coverings were required, another telling customers they must be vaccinated and a third reading “HELP WANTED.” But inside the restaurant, the owner said he’d stop asking people to mask up indoors.

At Union Station, almost all of the rush-hour commuters Friday evening were wearing masks.

“I don’t want to take mine off,” said Jesus Aguirre, 73, who got sick with COVID-19 last year. “I know how bad it can be.”

But another commuter, Zina Heineman, said she was relieved about the lifted mandate. She suffers from asthma and migraines and said that wearing a mask often makes her feel worse.

“Yeah,” her boyfriend interjected. “I already have my three shots, why do I have to wear this?”

Along a stretch of Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown on Friday, almost every shop still had a similar sign affixed to the door reading, “No mask, no entry.”

Grace Lee, who works at VIP Hair Salon on Olympic Boulevard, said she and other employees had begun telling their customers that they could take off their masks, but so far, she said, no one had wanted to.

As Lee squeezed perm solution into a customer’s hair and wrapped the strands around the rollers, the customer said she felt more comfortable wearing a mask and liked that it kept her face warm.

Lee understood, saying she appreciated anything that covered the wrinkles that had deepened on her face in the last two years. Before she takes off her mask in public, she said, she wants to be prepared.

“I have to get Botox!” she said.

A few blocks away at Surawon Tofu House, owner Sunny Lee said she was happy to hear that city officials may soon stop requiring businesses to check patrons’ vaccination cards.

Although customers have largely complied with the mandate — she recalls turning away only three customers without cards — she said she had to hire an employee specifically to check vaccination status.

“This is a very big relief,” she said.

At Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, security guard Michael Bennett kept track of roughly how many people he noticed still wearing masks on Friday — near 90%, he estimated. And he planned to keep wearing his too, until transmissibility rates decrease even further.

“I’m used to wearing it for two years,” he said. “It’s going to take me some time to feel like I don’t need it anymore.”

But other Angelenos, including Savaanah Gallegos, who spent Friday strolling maskless though a bookstore at the Grove with her family, had long been eager to ditch face coverings.

“It’s very important to me to have my freedom and choice, especially medical choice,” said Gallegos, 26, a traveling tattoo artist and mural painter, who said she isn’t vaccinated. “So I’m very grateful for this decision.”

When Gallegos’ 9-year-old niece was asked what she thought about the changed masking rule, she pointed to her younger brother’s T-shirt, which included a long, orange root with sunglasses and the caption, “I don’t carrot all.”

Back outside the Larchmont Village juice shop, customer Madison Howell said she’d just come from a beauty supply store, where she’d grabbed shampoo and relished the bare-face shopping experience.

“It was just really nice to walk inside a store and not put anything on for the first time in two years,” she said. “Today, I’m happier.”

Nearby, Dana Lanveros kept her mask on as she walked home from running errands. She’s vaccinated, but her daughters are both younger than 5 and therefore can’t yet get the shots.

“Maybe that’s why I’m still cautious about it,” she said, adding that it had given her pause when she’d noticed an employee at the juice shop without a mask on.

“It was like, ‘Oh, OK, so this is what we’re doing now,’” she said.

Times staff writers Lila Seidman, Kenan Draughorne, Rong-Gong Lin II, Emily Alpert Reyes, Rachel Uranga and Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.

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