Los Angeles County’s renewed requirement that everyone wear masks in indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status, will take effect late Saturday night, but not everyone at the county is on board with the idea.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Friday his deputies will not actively enforce the mask-wearing mandate, insisting his department is under-funded. He also said the requirement for vaccinated people to wear masks “is not backed by science and contradicts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the lone Republican on the five-member Board of Supervisors, also criticized the mandate for running afoul of federal and state rules on masking. She also said the mask mandate won’t help the county’s efforts “to stress the efficacy of the vaccines and compel unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated.”
“By deviating from the state, we create confusion and disagreement at the local level, which hinders public trust and takes away from our primary messaging which should be to encourage individuals to get vaccinated with urgency given the spread of the Delta variant,” Barger said.
Fellow board members Hilda Solis, Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl have come out in favor of the mandate.
“The county has chosen a reasonable response given that virtually everyone agrees requiring proof of vaccination status before entering buildings is unrealistic,” Kuehl said. “This keeps businesses open but makes it less likely unvaccinated people will just skip masks and put us all at risk. Until we can lower community transmission again and get more Angelenos vaccinated, we all need to pitch in and keep from providing breeding grounds for even more variants.”
Hahn echoed that sentiment, saying on Twitter: “Right now, unvaccinated people are required to wear masks indoors — but they aren’t and they are spreading this virus to other unvaccinated people.”
The masking mandate was announced Thursday by county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis. It will take effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re not where we need to be for the millions at risk of infection here in Los Angeles County, and waiting to do something would be too late given what we’re seeing now,” Davis said.
Davis said the rate of virus spread in the county has officially risen from moderate to substantial, with infections five times more likely to occur among unvaccinated residents. The county’s seven-day average rate of daily new cases rose to 7.1 cases per 100,000 residents, up from 4.8 just last week.
The county previously only recommended indoor mask-wearing by vaccinated people in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and protect unvaccinated residents. People who are unvaccinated have always been required to wear masks indoors, although enforcement was left up to individual business owners and was generally on the honor system.
The masking order will remain in place “until we see improvements” in case transmission, he said.
Asked if the county might consider re-implementing other health restrictions — such as capacity limits and physical distancing, Davis said, “Everything is on the table if things continue to get worse.”
The mandate means customers will again be required to mask up when entering any indoor public establishment, including retail shops, grocery stores, restaurants and workplaces. Davis said indoor dining will remain open, but customers will have to remain masked while they are not eating or drinking.
The city of Long Beach, which has its own health department separate from the county, announced Thursday night it will align with the county and also require indoor mask wearing for all. In a statement, Long Beach officials said the city has seen a 288% increase in average daily cases over the past two weeks. The city’s average daily rate of new cases has risen to 7.5 per 100,000 residents, up from an average of only one per 100,000 residents on June 15.
Pasadena, which also has its own health agency, has not aligned with the county and will continue only recommending indoor masking. But the city is monitoring “COVID case rates in Pasadena and are reviewing options for a mandate.”
On Thursday, the county reported 1,537 new infections, the highest number since early March. It was the seventh consecutive day of new case numbers that topped 1,000. The new cases lifted the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,262,578. The county reported three more COVID-19 deaths, lifting the overall death toll to 24,566.
The number of people hospitalized in Los Angeles County due to the virus jumped to 462 on Friday, up from 452 on Thursday and 406 on Wednesday, according to state figures. The number of people in intensive care crept back over the 100 mark, reaching 103 on Friday, up from 96 on Thursday. The number of people hospitalized has been climbing steadily for the past three weeks, and is now double the number reported when COVID health restrictions were lifted statewide on June 15.
The rolling-average rate of people testing positive for the virus also continued to climb, reaching 3.75% on Thursday, up from 3.7% Wednesday and well above the 0.3% rate from early June, and 1.2% on June 15.
The increase in infections and hospitalizations is widely blamed on the highly infectious “Delta” variant of the virus. The variant was first detected in India, where widespread infections were reported. The variant is also credited for significant outbreaks in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world.
“Delta” has been the most commonly detected variant in Los Angeles County for several weeks.
Davis insisted again that COVID vaccines provide strong protection against the virus and the “Delta” variant, but unvaccinated residents are at significantly higher risk.
There are still nearly 4 million county residents who are unvaccinated.
Currently, 69% of county residents age 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 61% are fully vaccinated. Among those aged 65 and older, 88% have received at least one dose, and 78% are fully vaccinated.
Black residents continue to have the lowest rate of vaccinations in the county. As of Sunday, 45% of Black residents in the county have received at least one dose, compared to 55% among Latinos, 66% of white residents and 76% of Asian residents.
While conceding that people who are vaccinated can still become infected, they are far less likely to become severely ill or die. As of Tuesday, among the nearly 4.8 million fully vaccinated residents, 4,122 have subsequently tested positive for the virus, a rate of 0.09%. Only 213 fully vaccinated residents have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.0045%, and 26 have died, a rate of 0.0005%.
In hopes of encouraging more people to get vaccinated, the county is continuing to offer incentives. Through next Thursday, anyone who gets vaccinated at sites operated by the county, the city of Los Angeles or St. John’s Well Child and Family Center will be entered for a chance to win one of seven concert ticket packages, with tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters, Disney on Ice and the Gold Over America Tour with Simone Biles at Staples Center.