LOS ANGELES — Health officials in Los Angeles County want everyone to wear masks indoors whether they’re vaccinated or not. The order, announced Thursday and scheduled to take effect Saturday at 11:59 p.m., creates an awkward difference in messages between the county and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said it’s ok for vaccinated people not to wear masks, while the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health now says otherwise.
The disagreement followed more than a year-long trend of mixed messages and reversed directives from the federal government all the way down to local municipalities.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, said he has deep misgivings about the order.
“I wonder what this mask ordinance is saying to people who got the vaccine,” Noymer said. “I wonder if it’s sending the wrong message. Taking off your mask was dangled as a carrot for taking the vaccine and now that carrot is being taken away.”
The recent decision was made after a spike in hospitalizations over the past two weeks, with the number rising to 462, according to the LA County Department of Health. And health officials said that the vast majority of those infections are in people who didn’t get the vaccine.
But part of the problem has been inconsistent messaging from officials, Noymer said. Perhaps the highest-profile gaffe occurred early on in the pandemic when Dr. Anthony Fauci told people not to wear masks, a message Noymer said was in bad faith.
The pandemic quickly became worse, killing millions of people worldwide and more than 600,000 in the United States. COVID-19 has been difficult for workers in the hospitality and tourism industries. Roughly 34% of low-income earners have had trouble paying for broadband services nationwide, and fewer than a third of U.S. teens had a job last summer.
The return of the mask ordinance to people indoors is a return to restrictions, but it’s also one of the least strict. While people watching films or shopping will have to wear masks, diners will be able to shed them once seated.
Noymer said coronavirus fatigue is real and may motivate people to stop listening — or listen more selectively to health directives. The problem is that the delta variant has proven to be more transmissible than the original strain.
He added that many of his peers understood a return to mask-wearing might be possible, but not in the summer.
“It’s like fall came early,” he said.
And because of fatigue over the virus, Noymer felt it was important to give people a break over the summer.
Complicating the message by Los Angeles health officials has been behind-the-scenes disagreements by scientists and challenges relaying complex ideas to the public in simple declarative statements. Confusion has sometimes prevailed. Even now, scientists argue over the origin of the coronavirus, with some endorsing the theory that it was created in a Wuhan laboratory.
Now, Noymer wonders if the new mask ordinance will serve to encourage people to get inoculated or not. He noted that people should always follow the rules, but with such a mishmash of messages, they might choose to do whatever they want.
The order comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Sept. 14 recall nears. Newsom’s historically high approval ratings took a hit when the pandemic was at its peak, creating an opportunity for aggressive, big-spending Republicans to successfully get a recall election.
Former Gov. Gray Davis said he doesn’t see how the order or future, stricter rules would hurt Newsom enough to damage him in the recall election.
Davis said it’s all about staying on task.
“You win this war by converting the hesitant,” Davis said. “You buy time by wearing masks indoors, but you don’t win the war that way. You win the war by getting them vaccinated.”
The hope is that everyone who’s not vaccinated will see this as an opportunity to get on board, he said.
Newsom is well in the lead as the election approaches, shrugging off attempts by Republican candidates like Kevin Faulconer.
Whether Los Angeles County will return to stricter health and safety protocols is unclear. Davis said Newsom has repeatedly shown that he won’t tolerate counties being less stringent than him, but he has yet to step in if a municipality decides to take his directives a step further.
Politically speaking, Newsom may be in a strong position, but UC, Irvine political science professor Tony Smith said there are some rules he won’t bring back.
“He’s not going to shut things down again, and he’s not going to make people keep their kids at home,” Smith said. “At least not before Sept. 14.”