An indoor mask mandate might be renewed within hours as successive waves of COVID-19 leave Los Angeles County public health officials considering options to slow the virus’ spread in the third summer of the coronavirus pandemic.
An announcement is expected Thursday on the possible return of an indoor mask mandate for Los Angeles County, a move that hinges on the county’s virus activity level as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The county entered the high category two weeks ago when the average daily rate of COVID-related hospital admissions rose above 10 per 100,000 residents. As of last Thursday, the rate was 11.7 admissions per 100,000 residents.
If the rate remains in the high level Thursday, the mandate could be imposed beginning Friday.
Or, it may be delayed.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer indicated twice over the past week that plans to reimpose a masking mandate could be put on hold in light of recent stabilizing hospitalization figures and a drop in average daily infection numbers. If the downward trends continue, LA County could drop back into the medium virus category, according to CDC measurements.
“We may be positioned to pause the implementation of universal masking,” Ferrer said Tuesday.
With widespread immunity, effective treatments and a relatively benign version of the coronavirus, some communities in Los Angeles County have indicated they won’t enforce the county mandate if it is re-instated.
On Wednesday, the city of El Segundo joined Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, and Long Beach and Pasadena — both of which have their own public health departments — in announcing this week that they will not enforce a mandate.
Los Angeles County is the only jurisdiction in the state considering an indoor mask mandate, although dozens of other counties also are in the CDC’s high virus activity category.
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Opposition to the concept has been aired by other Southern California public officials this summer, a contrast to the relative compliance encouraged during earlier surges in coronavirus activity when masking was a tool to “flatten the curve” until the arrival of vaccines and a requirement to reopen schools in California.
“The (Long Beach) Health Department strongly encourages people to practice personal responsibility and common-sense measures to protect themselves, their loved ones and the greater community from COVID-19,”
according to a statement from Long Beach. “People are advised to mask indoors when in public places, conduct rapid testing before and three to five days after social gatherings and choose outdoor activities where possible.”
Both Long Beach and Pasadena officials said they would continue to monitor the COVID situation.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger issued a statement Monday saying she will not support a mandate. She said she agrees that masks are an effective tool against virus spread, but does not believe imposing a mandate will have the desired effect.
“I am adamantly opposed to mandating the masking, because I truly do believe it’s going to have the opposite effect,” Barger said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
Supervisor Janice Hahn joined her in opposing a possible mandate, saying she fears imposing such a rule “will be very divisive for LA County.”
“I honestly believe there are a significant number of the population who are not willing to accept mask mandates at this point,” Hahn said. “And many of them, the ones that have contacted me, pointed out that we do have more tools now than we had at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Personally I’m worried … that we’re losing the trust this time of a portion of the public that’s actually been with us up to this point.”
Hahn suggested that the county consider simply expanding the list of places where masks are still required to include grocery stores and pharmacies, rather than all indoor spaces. Ferrer said her department would consider the idea.
An alliance of LA County business groups also expressed dismay at the possible return of a mask mandate. The alliance called on health officials to abandon plans for a universal COVID-19 indoor mask mandate, saying the move would be “heavy-handed” and a burden on businesses that will be forced to enforce the rule.
“This is not a debate about choosing between lives and livelihoods,” Tracy Hernandez, founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, said in a statement. “This is a discussion about educating and empowering Angelenos to make smart choices about protecting their health, our workers and the region’s collective ability to weather this latest wave of infections. We can do better than a heavy-handed mandate at this stage of pandemic recovery and endemic recalibration.”
What are LA County’s key COVID-19 numbers?
Ferrer on Tuesday again confirmed that most pandemic-tracking metrics are down, noting that the average daily rate of new cases over the past week had fallen to about 6,100, down from 6,700 the prior week — although the county on Wednesday reported 7,316 new infections.
Virus-related hospitalizations have also stabilized over the past week, she said, as well as the daily number of fatalities — although she stressed that the latter number remained too high at about 14 fatalities per day. Another 20 deaths were reported Wednesday.
She said transmission of COVID-19 remains high across the county, and the virus is still a leading cause of death, killing more people in the first six months of the year than drug overdoses, the flu and traffic crashes combined. The number of cases announced by the county each day are also believed to be an undercount, since many people rely on at-home tests, the results of which are not always reported to health officials.
According to state figures, there were 1,280 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, down from 1,286 on Tuesday. Of those patients, 137 were being treated in intensive care, up from 134 a day earlier.
The 7,316 new COVID cases reported Wednesday, raised the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 3,279,517. The 20 deaths lifted the overall death toll to 32,674.
The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 16.2% as of Wednesday.