Masked People at Work - Photo courtesy of Cherry Deck on Unsplash

An alliance of Los Angeles County business groups Thursday called on health officials to abandon plans for a universal COVID-19 indoor mask mandate, saying the move would be “heavy-handed” and a burden on businesses that will be forced to enforce the rule.

“This is not a debate about choosing between lives and livelihoods,” Tracy Hernandez, founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, said in a statement.

“This is a discussion about educating and empowering Angelenos to make smart choices about protecting their health, our workers and the region’s collective ability to weather this latest wave of infections. We can do better than a heavy-handed mandate at this stage of pandemic recovery and endemic recalibration.”

The county is on track to re-impose an indoor mask-wearing mandate on July 29, based on the current elevated transmission level of the virus and rising hospitalization numbers. The county last week entered the “high” virus activity level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dozens of counties across the state have also moved into the “high” transmission category, but Los Angeles is the only county that has announced plans to reinstate a mask mandate. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has repeatedly defended the move, calling it a simple yet effective way of slowing virus transmission and preventing hospitals from becoming overburdened.

Some critics, however, have questioned the need for a mandate, suggesting instead that a voluntary call would raise awareness of virus spread and encourage people to make their own decisions without placing an enforcement burden on small businesses.

In a statement Thursday, BizFed expressed support for a voluntary rule — which is already in effect — but said forcing businesses to enforce a mandate will “stymie economic recovery, confuse COVID-weary residents and further erode public trust in governing bodies.”

Ferrer told reporters Thursday that the county has never expected businesses to become enforcement agencies of the mask mandate, asking primarily that they inform workers of the requirement and provide them masks. She said in terms of enforcement, the county has always relied more heavily on education efforts in hopes of achieving voluntary compliance.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger last week urged Ferrer to conduct extensive outreach to businesses to discuss plans for the masking rule and the possible impacts of the regulation, particularly since surrounding counties will not be imposing a mandate. Ferrer said such efforts were already underway.

“We rely heavily on people understanding why it’s important for us to add in this layer of protection at this point,” Ferrer said Thursday. “And most people in the past have gone ahead and been compliant.”

Masks are already still mandated in some indoor spaces — healthcare facilities, transit hubs, on transit vehicles, airports, correctional facilities and shelters. A universal mandate would spread the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, indoor events, indoor restaurants and bars and schools.

Hernandez said the rule will put Los Angeles County businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

“The economic impacts of the pandemic must be monitored alongside the public health and social impacts,” she said. “It’s possible to protect people, jobs and our sense of community by compromising instead of arm twisting.”

BizFed is an alliance of roughly 215 business organizations, with organizers saying the group encompasses 410,000 employers with 5 million employees throughout the county.

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