LOS ANGELES — Rising case rates in Los Angeles have sparked a bitter debate over whether to trigger another mask mandate, motivating 5th District County Supervisor Kathryn Barger to speak out against a potential new order in an open letter.

The specter of new mask mandates in Los Angeles County has loomed since the pandemic began, even as other counties all but ended them. Talk of another one, which would make Los Angeles the only county in the state to have one, has continued to ratchet up tensions as the Board of Supervisors awaits the decision of Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

What You Need To Know

  • Supervisor Kathryn Barger publicly spoke out about the effectiveness of a mask mandate in an open letter

  • Beverly Hills said it would not enforce the mandate

  • Case counts dropped over the weekend, giving Barger some optimism a new mandate would not be ordered

  • Pasadena and Long Beach have local health departments and would not be impacted by the order

Last week, Barger felt Ferrer would likely trigger a new mask mandate but has become more optimistic that she won’t.

“I’m not convinced mandates work,” she said in an interview with Spectrum News 1. “I know we’ve educated people on what to do. If you feel uncomfortable, wear a mask. But I think it should be left up to the individuals and the businesses.”

Barger said she believes the best course forward is continued testing, vaccinations and boosters.

Another key to her argument is that mask mandates aren’t really mandates; they can’t be enforced and bar or restaurant owners aren’t equipped to clamp down.

There’s also the social component. Barger said people are fatigued over masks, and there has to be a good reason to ask them to cover up again.

“There’s going to be an uprising of parents. I can tell you many of them won’t send their children to school if there’s another mask mandate,” she said.

Barger also said she feels Ferrer has acted in good faith, even if she disagrees with her decisions.

Service industry concerns

There’s also concern over what further mandates could do to businesses, especially in the service industry.

“It will be especially difficult today for businesses to enforce a new mask mandate since the public has been allowed to go without masks for some time now. Enforcement is even tougher for restaurants, who remain short-staffed, are hampered by ongoing pandemic impacts, and are worried they’ll face the same heated confrontations from patrons they faced earlier on in the pandemic,” said Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs for the California Restaurant Association.

On Monday night, Beverly Hills said it would not enforce a mask mandate if LA County were to impose one.

Ferrer has come under increasing fire on social media platforms, with resistance from key officials like Barger growing in volume.

“She’s there to save people’s lives,” said Andrew Noymer, a University of California, Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention. “If people don’t want to follow her advice, that’s on them. I just don’t know why she’s being crucified. It’s really more like a strong suggestion. Like, don’t jaywalk.”

While public citations over health violations characterized much of the dismay among businesses owners, Noymer said this time might be different. Having observed Ferrer’s recent public remarks, he believes she’ll be more reluctant to issue fines as fatigue over mask mandates remains high.

According to City News Service, Ferrer said on Tuesday the county is still seeing a drop in case numbers and stabilizing hospitalizations and deaths. She said given the improvements in these key metrics, "We may be positioned to pause the implementation of universal masking." 

Still, if a new mandate were to go into effect, many expect it could be announced Thursday and be adopted Friday.

Some leaders in the sphere of COVID-19 research and study have veered away from strict views on masking and distancing. In the spring of 2020, just as the illness arrived in the United States, fears ran high, hospitalizations spiked, ventilators were too few and hospital staff in New York City ran out of storage for people who died from the virus.

The picture of COVID-19 now is much different. And politicians and medical officials have had to weigh what they believe may be the most cautious choice with what the voting public is willing to tolerate.

The current debate about whether to return to indoor masking could be a turning point for a future debate in the fall and winter. While case rates tend to dip after the winter, they climb again in the summer. Even though people are spending more time outdoors, there’s also more people clamoring for the beaches and theme parks. But case rates have climbed again during the winters — deaths too — as the flu joins in to contribute to poor health, weighing more heavily on the old and ill.

Barger said high winter case rates are a problem for another time, and that the numbers should be reviewed and considered as required.

Mask effectiveness  

As fears over the spread of coronavirus developed, Anthony Fauci, chief medical expert to President Joseph R. Biden, announced that the average person should not wear an N95 mask because hospitals were afraid they might run out of them. He reversed that message later and expanded the list of materials that could cover the face. But more than two years into the pandemic, Noymer says the data on mask effectiveness is not as definitive as it could be.

“It’s a thorny problem to prove that masks reduce transmission,” he said. “We don’t have any data from what we would consider to be the ideal way to study this.”

Noymer still masks and suggests that others mask up when going into the grocery store or a movie theater. It can’t hurt, he said, and he believes in the science, even if the details of the studies don’t cover everything.

But mask wearing in public is never perfect. Noymer pointed out that not all masks are created equal.

“If someone’s going to slap a bandana on their face, it’s not really going to work,” he said.

Not everyone will bother to buy an N95, or wear two of them at once, or properly wear them. But Noymer said people still need to have a sense of urgency. There are new variants developing all the time, making certain that COVID-19 isn’t going away.

“There’s this fantasy out there that it doesn’t kill anymore,” Noymer said. “But there’s still an abnormally high number of deaths.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original story was updated to include new comments from Barbara Ferrer as reported by City News Service. (July 26, 2022)