A casual multi-restaurant dining hall. Photo from Pixabay.
Example of restaurant. Photo from Pixabay.

Los Angeles County’s much-debated COVID-19 indoor mask-wearing mandate could be lifted by Friday, according to the public health director, aligning the county with the state’s action that took effect Tuesday.

The move would mean Los Angeles County will no longer require people to wear masks at indoor businesses. The county is one of the final holdouts in California not to align with the state on the masking rules.

The state last month dropped its indoor mask-wearing mandate for vaccinated people. On Tuesday, it also dropped the mandate for unvaccinated people.

Los Angeles County, however, resisted lifting its indoor masking requirement. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the county wanted to wait until the local virus-transmission rate fell out of the “high” category as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and maintained the lower level for at least two weeks. Under the current rate of decline, Ferrer previously said that would mean the mask mandate would be in place until the end of March.

But on Friday, the CDC announced new standards that rely largely on COVID hospital numbers to govern whether masks should be worn. Those new standards — while resulting in mask recommendations being lifted for much of the country, still classified Los Angeles as having “high” virus activity and urged that people continue to wear masks.

Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors that the county’s designation will likely change when the CDC updates its data on Thursday.

“We anticipate that on Thursday, when CDC updates their community-level table, L.A. County will be moving to low risk,” Ferrer said. “And we are prepared on Thursday to issue a modified health officer order with an effective date of implementation for Friday, March 4th, that will strongly recommend and not require indoor masking in most public indoors spaces.”

Masks, however, will continue to be required in locations where they are mandated by federal and state orders, including health care facilities, transit centers, airports, aboard public transit, in correctional facilities and at homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

Ferrer stressed that mask will still be strongly recommended, noting that many residents remain vulnerable to infection and possibly severe illness from the virus.

“As we’ve emphasized throughout the pandemic, masks are one of the easiest things we can do to prevent COVID-19 transmission and provide strong protection to the person wearing them, as well as to the people around them, including those who are most vulnerable to harm from COVID-19,” Ferrer said. “We, along with the state and the CDC continue to urge individuals regardless of their vaccination status to keep their masks on in public indoor settings until there’s less risk for those most vulnerable.”

Masks are still required indoors at K-12 schools, however, the state announced Monday that it will lift that requirement as of March 12. Los Angeles County will also lift its school-masking requirement in alignment with the state on that day, but individual school districts have the option of maintaining the mandate.

That means the rule could potentially remain in effect at the Los Angeles Unified School District. In a statement Monday, the district would not commit to dropping the mask requirement.

“We are encouraged by recent improvements to local health conditions, which underscore the effectiveness of the district’s robust vaccination and testing programs,” according to the district. “We are committed to upholding our science-driven approach to COVID-19 protocols and will continue to consult with our medical director and health partners as we work to establish an updated mask policy.

“We respect the voices of all stakeholders, and as such, we will remain engaged with our labor partners, employees and families as we maintain and seek practices that are protective, responsive and in the best interest of our school communities.”

Meanwhile, the president of the district’s powerful teachers union indicated that it will oppose any effort to lift the indoor mask mandate.

“LAUSD schools have been the safest and most well-equipped in the country because educators and families united to demand critical health and safety protocols,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement. “These protocols, like indoor masking, have protected tens of thousands of educators and more than half a million students, along with their families. It is premature to discuss removing these health and safety measures while there are still many unvaccinated youth in our early education programs and schools.”

Ferrer warned that while the mask mandate is being lifted, the virus remains a threat. She said the county will be monitoring seven “alert signals” that could portend increased virus activity. Three of them are community-wide metrics — variants of concern, COVID-19 emergency department visits and cumulative COVID case rates in high-poverty communities.

The other four “alert signals” involve specific sectors, tracking outbreaks at skilled nursing facilities, at K-12 schools, at homeless shelters and at worksites.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who has been pushing for the county to align with the state on masking rules, hailed the pending lifting of the mandate. But she again stressed that face coverings do not have to disappear.

“That doesn’t mean you throw your mask away,” she said. “They still do serve a purpose.”

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