In a major policy shift, an eased indoor mask mandate went into effect in Los Angeles County Friday, allowing people vaccinated against COVID-19 to remove face coverings indoors at establishments that verify patrons’ vaccination status.
The change took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, according to the Department of Public Health.
The new health order, however, will put the onus on businesses to ensure that all customers permitted indoors are either fully vaccinated or can provide proof of a recent negative COVID test.
Even after that verification, only fully vaccinated customers will be permitted to remove masks indoors. Unvaccinated customers must continue wearing masks indoors, even after showing proof of a negative COVID test, unless they are actively eating or drinking.
The same basic rules will apply to workers at indoor establishments.
“This allows, in places where you’re verifying that people are either fully vaccinated or they have that negative test result, that then it’s a safer environment where those who are fully vaccinated can go ahead and (remove) their masks,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters Thursday.
“While those who are not, even if they’ve had a negative test result, (must) keep their masks on. That’s to stay aligned with the state order.”
The change follows rising pressure from two members of the county Board of Supervisors for a loosening of the mask mandate to more closely align with the state, which dropped its indoor mask mandate last week.
Los Angeles County, however, kept its mandate in place, setting parameters for ending the requirement that likely will not be met until the end of March.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger initially pushed for the county to align with the state, saying the contradictory requirements were leading to apathy and lax compliance among residents. Supervisor Janice Hahn joined Barger in that call last week, pointing to Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood Feb. 13 as an example of people willfully ignoring the county’s masking guidelines.
Hahn broke the news on Twitter on Tuesday that the county planned to ease the indoor mask mandate for businesses that verify vaccination status. On Wednesday, she called the move a “step in the right direction.”
“I still think that the better and less confusing approach would be to fully align with the state of California, but this is a welcome step in the right direction as our cases decline and we learn to live with this virus,” she said in a statement.
Barger on Tuesday said she was “glad to hear” of the pending policy change, but said she still wants the county to do more, and completely align with the state’s decision to lift the indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people.
Long Beach and Pasadena, which both have their own health departments separate from the county, will ease their indoor masking requirements on Saturday — but they will go beyond the county’s action and generally align with the state.
In those cities, like the rest of the state, masks will still be required indoors for unvaccinated people. However, businesses can allow patrons to simply self-attest to their vaccination status, without any formal verification process.
Businesses will also have the option of verifying everyone’s vaccination status, or to simply require all patrons to wear masks.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected Friday to issue revised guidelines on a variety of COVID-prevention fronts, including an anticipated loosening of masking rules. Ferrer said she is aware of the pending announcement, and local health officials will review whatever the CDC releases to see if it will lead to any change in local regulations.
Los Angeles County lifted its outdoor mask mandate for large event venues, schools and child-care centers last week. Masks will continue to be required indoors at schools under a state requirement that is expected to be re-evaluated by early next week.
The county’s indoor mask mandate will remain in effect at businesses that do not verify customers’ vaccination status. That mandate will not be lifted until:
— the county’s level of COVID transmission falls to the “moderate” level as defined by the CDC and remains there for two weeks; OR
— COVID vaccines have been available to residents under age 5 for at least eight weeks; AND
— no emerging COVID “variants of concern” have been identified that could spark another surge in cases.
According to Ferrer, reaching the CDC’s “moderate” level of transmission requires the county to have a seven-day cumulative infection rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. As of Wednesday, the county’s rate was 133 per 100,000 residents.
Ferrer noted that the county’s rate has been steadily declining, and at the current pace, the county would reach the “moderate” designation by March 16, meaning the indoor mask mandate would be completely lifted by March 30.
Under federal rules, masks will continue to be required indoors at airports, transit centers, aboard public transit, in health-care facilities and at homeless shelters, long-term care centers and emergency shelters.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County reported another 74 COVID-related deaths on Thursday, raising the cumulative death toll from throughout the pandemic to 30,519. Another 1,985 new cases were also confirmed, for a pandemic total of 2,789,292.
Ferrer said the seven-day average number of new cases has dropped to about 2,400 over the past week, compared to around 3,800 the previous week. The average number of deaths has also begun to fall, with the seven-day average this week at 54 per day, down from 67 the previous week.
The average daily rate of new cases is at 54 per 100,000 residents, down from 67 per 100,000 the previous week.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing for the virus was 2.2% as of Thursday.
According to state figures, there were 1,150 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, down from 1,204 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 241 were being treated in intensive care, down from 269 a day earlier.
According to figures released Thursday, 82% of eligible county residents age 5 and over have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, while 74% are fully vaccinated, and 36% are fully vaccinated and received a booster shot.
Of the county’s overall 10.3 million population, 78% have had at least one dose, 70% are fully vaccinated and 34% have received a booster shot.