California lifts indoor masking mandate except for schools

Intensive Care Unit nurse Kathy Brady looks on as Pharmacist, Courtney Mattley, left, draws the first dose of Pfizer BioNTech, Covid-19 vaccine before administering it to Brady at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Valencia on Thursday, 121720. Dan Watson/The Signal

While maintaining the status quo on requiring masks on school campuses, California’s indoor masking policy for public spaces will transition Thursday from a “required” designation to “strongly recommended,” state officials said during a press conference on Monday.  

In addressing members of the public and media via a live stream, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said state officials would reassess whether to move to a less-restrictive policy for school campuses on Feb. 28.   

The news of lessening the strictness of the masking policy comes after the state had announced a temporary public indoor masking requirement on Dec. 10 due to cases, transmissions and hospitalizations climbing throughout the state.  

On Jan. 5, the state extended the masking policy due to case rates being three times higher than January 2021 during the first winter surge. But then on Monday, Ghaly said that, starting Wednesday, Californians will no longer be required by the state to wear face coverings in public places except on school campuses.   

Those in counties with stricter requirements, such as in L.A. County, will still need to abide by local restrictions.  

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last week that county residents and businesses would still be required to wear masks indoors for the near future, despite what other counties and communities throughout the state might do as cases and hospitalizations continue to decline following the latest Omicron surge. 

As for the reasoning behind both decisions by the state — removing the public space masking requirements while maintaining the policy on school campuses — Ghaly said the state was continuing to follow a “science driven approach” and that, unlike the rest of the public, children under the age of 11 years old typically have lower vaccination rates.  

According to data available on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring website, 73.9% of California residents age 5 and up are fully vaccinated, and another 8.7% are partially vaccinated. However, kids aged 5-11 have a significantly lower vaccination rate compared to older cohorts, with only 27.8% of them being fully vaccinated and 7.9% at least partially vaccinated.  

“Today, there’ll be no change in the [school] masking requirement but on Feb. 28, a full two weeks from now, we will reassess the data,” said Ghaly, later adding: “We will use this opportunity to remind students’ families that this is a great chance to get vaccinated, that vaccines are free, safe and effective, and that they do a lot to help protect not just the individuals, but the community at large.” 

Ghaly said state health officials would be looking at pediatric vaccination and case rates, among other factors, to determine whether to transition school campuses to a less-restrictive tier.  

Last week, Ferrer said the county would be looking at two benchmarks to determine when they would remove their own indoor masking requirements: the county reaching a “moderate” transmission rate of 730 cases a day for two consecutive weeks and eight weeks after kids ages 6 months to 4 years become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

L.A. County averaged 5,331 cases a day between Feb. 6 and Feb.12, according to daily case numbers released by the L.A. County Department of Public Health. On Sunday, the Public Health Department reported 2,457 daily cases countywide.  

“We anticipate being able to get to ‘moderate’ transmission, if we can continue to drive down the rates, as we are right now on our cases, within a few weeks,” Ferrer said during last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, later adding: “But we’re not there yet.” 

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