EDITOR'S NOTE: Multimedia journalist Zarina Khairzada spoke with clients at a local salon as LA County eases its mask mandate. Click the arrow above to watch the video.
LOS ANGELES (CNS) — A relaxed indoor mask mandate went into effect in Los Angeles County Friday, allowing people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 to remove face coverings indoors at establishments that verify patrons' vaccination status.
The change took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Hours later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced amended COVID guidelines that dropped its recommendation for indoor mask-wearing in much of the country — but not in Los Angeles County.
The CDC's new guidelines shifted the agency's emphasis away from COVID infection rates to focus on hospitalization numbers. The move came in recognition that with more people vaccinated, many people who get infected with the virus won't require hospitalization, reducing the likelihood that hospitals will become overrun with patients.
But even with that shift, the CDC still categorized Los Angeles County's community COVID level as "high," meaning the agency continued to recommend indoor mask-wearing. It was not immediately clear when the county might fall to the "medium" category, which would drop the mask-wearing recommendation for most indoor locations. But it could potentially happen in a matter of days.
It also was not immediately clear if the county will immediately follow the new CDC guidelines or stick to its previous metrics for determining when to lift the remainder of the indoor mask-wearing mandate. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters Thursday that health officials would review the new CDC measures and likely present some options to the Board of Supervisors next week.
In the meantime, the indoor mask-wearing mandate will remain in place for most locations in the county. But under the relaxed rules that took effect Friday, vaccinated people will be able to shed masks at indoor businesses that verify the vaccine status of all patrons. The rule puts the burden on individual businesses to verify that all customers permitted indoors are either fully vaccinated or can provide proof of a recent negative COVID test.
Even after that verification is conducted, only fully vaccinated customers are permitted to remove masks indoors. Unvaccinated customers must continue wearing masks indoors, even after showing proof of a negative COVID test, unless they are actively eating or drinking.
The same basic rules will apply to workers at indoor establishments.
"This allows, in places where you're verifying that people are either fully vaccinated or they have that negative test result, that then it's a safer environment where those who are fully vaccinated can go ahead and (remove) their masks," Ferrer said Thursday.
"While those who are not, even if they've had a negative test result, (must) keep their masks on. That's to stay aligned with the state order."
The change followed rising pressure from two members of the county Board of Supervisors for a loosening of the mask mandate to more closely align with the state, which dropped its indoor mask mandate last week.
Los Angeles County, however, kept its mandate in place, setting parameters for ending the requirement that likely will not be met until the end of March.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger has been pushing for the county to align with the state, saying the contradictory requirements were leading to apathy and lax compliance among residents. Supervisor Janice Hahn joined Barger in that call last week, pointing to Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood Feb. 13 as an example of people willfully ignoring the county's masking guidelines.
Hahn called the county's easing of the mandate on Friday a "step in the right direction."
"I still think that the better and less confusing approach would be to fully align with the state of California, but this is a welcome step in the right direction as our cases decline and we learn to live with this virus," she said in a statement.
Barger on Tuesday said she was "glad to hear" of the pending policy change but said she still wants the county to do more and completely align with the state's decision to lift the indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people.
After the CDC announced its revised masking guidelines Friday, Barger wrote on Twitter that the county has previously committed to following the CDC's lead.
"So once we get there, I FULLY expect our county to end universal indoor masking mandates," she wrote.
Long Beach and Pasadena, which both have their own health departments separate from the county, will ease their indoor masking requirements on Saturday — generally, align with the state. In those cities, masks will still be required indoors for unvaccinated people. However, businesses can allow patrons to simply self-attest to their vaccination status without any formal verification process.
Businesses also will have the option of verifying everyone's vaccination status or simply requiring all patrons to wear masks.
For now, the remainder of Los Angeles County's indoor mask mandate remains in effect at establishments that do not verify patrons' vaccination status. Under the current plan, Ferrer said the mandate will remain in effect until:
— the county's level of COVID transmission rate falls to the "moderate" level as defined by the CDC and remains there for two weeks; OR
— COVID vaccines have been available to residents under age 5 for at least eight weeks; AND
— no emerging COVID "variants of concern" have been identified that could spark another surge in cases.
According to Ferrer, reaching the CDC's "moderate" level of transmission requires the county to have a seven-day cumulative infection rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. Ferrer said that is expected to happen by March 16, meaning the indoor mask mandate would be completely lifted by March 30.
Los Angeles County lifted its outdoor mask mandate for large event venues, schools and child-care centers last week. Masks will continue to be required indoors at schools under a state requirement that is expected to be re-evaluated Monday.
Under federal rules, masks continue to be required indoors at airports, transit centers, aboard public transit, in health-care facilities and at homeless shelters, long-term care centers and emergency shelters.
Los Angeles County reported another 68 COVID-related deaths on Friday, raising the cumulative death toll from throughout the pandemic to 30,587. Another 2,406 new cases were also confirmed, for a pandemic total of 2,791,630.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing for the virus was 1.9% as of Friday.
According to state figures, there were 1,105 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Friday, down from 1,150 on Thursday. Of those patients, 230 were being treated in intensive care, down from 241 a day earlier.
According to figures released Thursday, 82% of eligible county residents ages 5 and over have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, while 74% are fully vaccinated, and 36% are fully vaccinated and received a booster shot.
Of the county's overall 10.3 million population, 78% have had at least one dose, 70% are fully vaccinated and 34% have received a booster shot.