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California is ditching its indoor mask mandate—but not yet L.A.

As has often been the case, L.A. County will continue to have stricter rules than its neighbors, like OC.

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

As Covid cases sharply fall, hospitalizations stabilize and vaccination rates unhurriedly rise (and as, uh, politicians pose maskless at football games), California has decided not to extend its statewide indoor mask mandate.

On February 15, California’s statewide indoor mask mandate will expire, which means only unvaccinated individuals will be required to wear masks in indoor public settings. But—because of course there’s a but—this won’t apply quite yet in Los Angeles County, which has its own stricter ordinance in place that predates the statewide one.

Just last week the L.A. County Department of Public Health reiterated the metrics required to drop its local mandate, and this week the department further elaborated on—and slightly tweaked—its plan. The short version: We could see the mask mandate for large outdoor events dropped by February 16, and the indoor mask mandate dropped by late March.

“Masks provide an essential layer of protection when transmission is high and the vaccine protections have waned,” Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said during a briefing on Thursday. In defending the county’s decision to not drop its indoor mask mandate yet, she noted that cases and hospitalizations are currently higher than when the governor first issued the statewide mask mandate.

This all means that, after February 15, vaccinated individuals will be able to ditch their masks in mandate-less neighbors like Orange County, but not in L.A. Even in those areas, though, a federal mandate will still require masks on public transit and in healthcare facilities, and a state ordinance currently requires masks in K–12 schools, as well.

Back to L.A. specifically, when Covid-19 hospitalizations drop below 2,500 people for seven consecutive days, the county will ease some of its Omicron-induced surge requirements: Notably masks will no longer be required at large outdoor “mega events.” On Thursday, L.A. recorded its first day below that mark, which means that ordinance could be eased after next Wednesday if trends hold.

To drop the indoor mandate, L.A. County will need to log two straight weeks at or below the “moderate transmission” tier (the second of four CDC-defined tiers). Alternatively, the county would also do so if vaccines have been available for children under age five for eight weeks. In either case, we’d need to be in a period in which there are no emerging reports of significantly circulating, vaccine-evading new variants of concern. As it stands now, L.A. remains in the highest level of the CDC’s tiers; there are currently more than 600 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, and that number would need to fall below 50. But that number has been dropping by about 3.5% every day, and Ferrer estimates that if we maintain that pace, we’d meet the requirements in 25 to 30 days—add two weeks onto that, and you’re looking at indoor mask requirements being dropped by late March.

Ferrer noted that the requirements to drop the indoor mandate could ease if new tools that improve Covid-19 outcomes arise, such as an adequate supply of highly effective therapeutics. However, the antiviral pill Paxlovid currently remains in scarce supply. She also commented on the future of the county’s targeted vaccine mandate for indoor bars, which will continue until we see two weeks of low transmission—or “not any time soon” as Ferrer put it.

In addition to the mask mandate, the state will also ease the definitions for mega events, which require proof of vaccination or a negative test result: The threshold for what qualifies as an indoor mega events will increase from 500 to 1,000 people, while outdoor ones will increase from 5,000 to 10,000 (it’s not clear yet if both the City and County of L.A. will follow suit on this).

This story was initially published on February 7, after the initial announcement from the state, and has been updated with the latest info from the county.

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