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LA County’s indoor mask mandate paused amid slowing COVID-19 transmission

Orange County Register - 7/28/2022

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health will not reinstate a universal indoor mask mandate, the department announced today, citing slowing COVID-19 transmission countywide.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, during a weekly COVID-19 briefing on Thursday, July 28, said that LA County’s data — differing from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data — is showing a decrease in the spread of the virus and hospitalizations as a result.

“Any indication that the county would soon be moving to the medium community level would be a good reason to not move forward with universal indoor masking, which is what we are doing today,” Ferrer said. “We we will be pausing and not moving forward at this time.”

Ferrer said the county may move back into medium community transmission as early as next Thursday, though that determination will have to wait until the county receives the CDC’s most recent COVID-19 data.

The county had foreshadowed the mandate’s return two weeks ago, as rising coronavirus case and hospitalization rates climbed, fueled by two highly contagious — but less-severe — omicron subvariants.

Those increases sent the county into the high-transmission tier, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on July 15. At that point, Ferrer said the county would reimpose the indoor mask mandate on Friday, July 29, unless the metrics improved.

The warning, though, belied the general sense among many that the pandemic had hit its nadir and coronavirus health regulations had been largely resigned to the previous two years.

As the date for the mandate’s renewal drew closer, that contradiction crystallized in pushback against county health officials — from cities, businesses and even their bosses on the Board of Supervisors.

“I support our current COVID-19 public health masking policies, which require their use while using public transportation, in hospitals, homeless shelters and jails,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a Monday, July 25, statement. “However, imposing a one size-fits-all masking mandate now for all is not something I can or will support.”

The Beverly Hills and El Segundo city councils this week also voted not to enforce a mask mandate, though neither has its own health department and ostensibly falls under the Department of Public Health’s Authority.

Long Beach and Pasadena, meanwhile, also said they have no current plans to reimpose a mask mandate, though they each said that could change as the situation dictates. Both have their own health departments and can differ from county policies.

Many businesses, for their part, seem poised to give perfunctory deference to a mask mandate — putting up signs but not doing much to ensure customers and employees wear face coverings.

“There are a lot of people who feel indifferent about the mandate, but I think that’s going to translate into them also being indifferent in the enforcement of it,” Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association said this week. “We’ve already been through this, where low-waged employees have been insulted and assaulted by irate customers. I just don’t think people want that anymore.”

At the same time the county faced opposition to reimpose the mandate, Ferrer softened the health department‘s position on whether it will happen.

On Tuesday, Ferrer said the county could hold off on resurrecting the mandate if metrics, which had shown signs of trending downward, declined closer to the high-transmission threshold.

Given the slowing case numbers and falling hospitalizations, Ferrer said during a Tuesday briefing, “we may be positioned to pause the implementation of universal masking.”

Three metrics determine a county’s transmission, as defined by the CDC: New COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people over the past seven days, and the percent of staffed inpatient hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Because the county’s new case rate as long been greater than 200 people per 100,000 residents, the threshold for moving into the high-transmission tier was either 10 or more new COVID-19 hospitalizations over a seven-day period or the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients hitting at least 10% over seven days.

The county moved into the high tier on July 14, when hospital admissions hit 10.5 people per 100,000 residents. The proportion of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19-positive patients, meanwhile, was about 5.4%.

A week later, on July 21, the former metric had climbed to 11.7.

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