Example of maskless indoor activity. Photo via Pixabay.

COVID-19 masking rules will be eased in Los Angeles County starting Friday, with health officials announcing Wednesday they will lift the requirement for face coverings in correctional facilities and homeless shelters, while indoor mask-wearing in general will become a matter of individual preference.

The county Department of Public Health announced it will align with new state guidance announced Tuesday easing the mask-wearing rules that have been in place for most of the year in response to surging COVID cases.

The new state rules will take effect Friday, lifting the mask-wearing requirement at correctional facilities, homeless and emergency shelters and in cooling centers. The eased rules will affect counties where COVID activity is rated as “low” — which covers most of the state, including Los Angeles County.

Masks will continue to be required at health-care and long-term care facilities.

“This shift in masking is consistent with California’s SMARTER Plan and gives Californians the information they should consider when deciding when to wear a mask, including the rate of spread in the community and personal risk,” California Department of Public Health Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón said in a statement announcing the change.

In counties categorized as having “low” COVID activity, mask-wearing will become a matter of personal preference or individual risk level. People considered at higher risk of infection or severe illness should consider wearing a mask in crowded indoor public places, according to the state.

Los Angeles County was already preparing to ease its indoor mask-wearing guidance based on reduced COVID transmission levels. The county had planned to make the move when its weekly infection rate fell below 100 new cases per 100,000 residents.

With the county nearing that threshold, and given the state’s shifting guidance, the county announced Wednesday it will change its directive on Friday, meaning it “will shift from strongly recommending indoor masking for the general public to individual preference, unless required by the site.”

Masks are currently still required on buses, trains and other forms of transit, although county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has said that requirement could soon be lifted. Ferrer is expected to address the issue during her weekly COVID briefing on Thursday, according to the Department of Public Health.

The county has been experiencing downward trends in COVID infections and hospitalizations for weeks.

On Wednesday, the number of COVID-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals fell to 573, down from 633 on Tuesday, according to state figures. Of those patients, 83 were being treated in intensive care units, up from 69 on Tuesday.

County officials have said about 43% of patients with COVID were actually hospitalized due to virus-related illness, while the rest were admitted for other reasons, with some only learning they were infected when they were tested upon admission.

The county Department of Public Health reported another 1,451 COVID infections on Wednesday, lifting the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 3,444,076. The case numbers officially reported by the county are also believed to be low due to the popularity of at-home tests, the results of which are generally not relayed to the county.

Another 12 COVID-related deaths were also reported Wednesday, giving the county an overall death toll of 33,509.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 4.6% as of Wednesday.

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