Los Angeles County is likely to enter the “low-risk” area under new federal COVID criteria, the county’s chief of public health said on Tuesday, March 1. The threshold appears to mean the county will no longer require people to wear masks at indoor businesses as early as Friday, according to director of public health Barbara Ferrer.
Ferrer said the province is ready to issue a new Health Officer Order on Thursday, which will take effect Friday. When that step is taken, masks will be “highly recommended” but will no longer be required in businesses.
Currently, employees and customers must show proof of full vaccination or a recent COVID negative test to enter LA County businesses — and can only unmask if they are fully vaccinated.
The shift would bring the province into line with the state’s action that went into effect on Tuesday, March 1. The county is one of the last sentries in California not to align itself with the state over masking rules.
The state last month dropped its mandate to wear indoor masks for vaccinated people. On Tuesday, it also dropped the mandate for unvaccinated people.
Los Angeles County, however, resisted dropping the requirement for indoor masks. Ferrer said the county wanted to wait until the local virus transmission rate fell outside the “high” category, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and maintain the lower level for at least two weeks. Under the current rate of decline, Ferrer previously said it would mean the mask mandate would be in effect until the end of March.
But on Friday, the CDC announced new standards that rely largely on COVID hospital numbers to determine whether masks should be worn. Those new standards — though they led to mask recommendations being lifted for much of the country — still classified Los Angeles as “high” virus activity and urged people to continue wearing masks.
Ferrer told the provincial board of supervisors on Tuesday that the CDC updates its data every Thursday. And when this week’s update is released, Los Angeles County will likely fall from the “high” virus activity category to the “low” category, she said.
“It’s pretty clear that by this Thursday … we’ll have moved to medium or low risk. Most likely low risk,” Barbara Ferrer, director of public health, told supervisors.
Hospital admissions in the province related to COVID have been falling for weeks — though they are up a bit on Tuesday, from 916 to 927, the first increase since mid-January, according to the state database. However, the number of people in intensive care fell by eight.
Ferrer’s statement is hugely significant, as it was not expected to arrive until mid to late March.
Ferrer’s team had initially estimated that if the pace of declining cases and hospitalizations continues, the county is on track to transition from a “high transfer” phase to a “medium transfer” phase by mid-March. Two weeks in such a brace would lead to wider relaxation of masking rules in the province, officials said. But that changed under the CDC’s new “community-level” criteria.
However, masks remain mandatory in locations where they are required by federal and state orders, including health care facilities, transit centers, airports, on board public transportation, in correctional facilities and in homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.
The move to eliminating indoor masks in schools is already on its own timetable.
On Monday, the Department of Health announced it would lift its mandate to mask K-12 schools and childcare facilities effective March 12. The move — which maintains a “strong recommendation” to continue wearing masks indoors — aligns the county with easing the state rule. (Local jurisdictions cannot set less strict state rules, but they have the freedom to set stricter rules based on local circumstances). The revised decision also gives individual districts the ability to continue with risk-based mask policies.
That means that while many school districts — such as the 32 who wrote Monday to urge Ferrer to lift the mandate — are likely to act quickly to allow students and staff to drop face coverings indoors, others need more to to judge.
Those others are the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in the state and the second largest in the country. There is no guarantee that there will be any change in LAUSD on March 12th. UTLA — the local teachers’ union with which the district must negotiate before it can lift its indoor masking mandate — has expressed concerns about moving too fast.
Such negotiations are examples of the issue of when such mandates should be lifted. Public health officials have urged caution in gradually easing rules that were often stricter than the state’s. They cite low vaccination rates for young people and declining vaccination rates across the country. Still a high death rate and high transmission.
Public health leaders are also concerned about the emergence of new variants, and they lament the lack of an adequate supply of therapies, drugs that could well be game-changers — if they were available. But they aren’t, and all things considered, it makes frontline workers — who would have to spend hours serving unmasked customers — vulnerable, public health officials say.
On the other side of the problem, parents and other critics have expressed deep frustration with the mandates, arguing that there is no reason to delay lifting them as the statistics are improving rapidly.
Many who support ending masking mandates have said it’s important for students to see their classmates’ smiles and to be able to hear or be heard from each other, without face coverings muffling their voices. In addition, they have said long-term COVID-19 restrictions in schools are harming students, citing learning loss and mental health crises many children have experienced during the pandemic.
Ferrer has acknowledged those concerns, but said many parents and employees have expressed different views and are pushing for restraint in lifting rules too soon. Finding a balance meant meeting employee groups to hear concerns.
This is a breaking story. Watch out for updates
City News Service contributed to this report.