Recent declines in cases and coronavirus-positive hospitalizations could pull Los Angeles County back from the brink of a new universal public indoor mask mandate.
County health officials have said they won’t decide whether to impose the long-looming order until later this week, but noted Tuesday that improvements in some COVID-19 metrics could prompt a delay.
A potential pause of the face covering order would mark a turnaround for the nation’s most populous county. That measure appeared likely as of the end of last week, much to the chagrin of some residents, business groups and elected leaders who characterized it an unnecessary and ineffectual overreach.
But a few days can make quite a difference.
Last Wednesday, 1,329 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized countywide. That total plunged to 1,200 by Friday before creeping up again over the weekend, to 1,286 as of Monday.
It’s too soon to say whether this latest wave has peaked — especially as the ultra-contagious BA.5 Omicron subvariant is still widespread. But County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted Tuesday the county has also recently seen a decline in newly reported infections.
As of Monday afternoon, L.A. County was averaging about 6,100 coronavirus cases a day over the previous week, down 11% from the prior week’s average of nearly 6,900 cases a day. On a per-capita basis, the latest rate is 425 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. A case rate of 100 or more is considered high.
“It’s important to note we had three instances earlier this spring and summer where we saw dips in cases that were followed shortly by increases,” she added. “So it’s important for us to continue to be cautious and prepared for layering in additional protections.”
Ferrer had said L.A. County would reimpose an indoor mask mandate if it reached the high COVID-19 community level defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and remained there for two consecutive weeks.
Placement in that category — the CDC updates its assessments every Thursday — means a county is recording both a significant amount of community transmission and at least 10 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents.
L.A. County entered the high level on July 14 and remained there last week. However, citing data available through Saturday, the CDC reported rate had fallen to exactly 10.
“Should we see sustained decreases in cases, or the rate of hospital admissions moves closer to the threshold for medium, we will pause implementation of universal indoor masking as we closely monitor our transmission rates,” Ferrer said.
She had previously said the county could hold off on a mandate if transmission showed pronounced signs of slowing.
If issued, a renewed face covering order would apply indoors for anyone age 2 or older at a host of establishments and venues, including shared office space, manufacturing and retail settings, event spaces, restaurants and bars, gyms and yoga studios, educational settings and children’s programs.
Public health officials largely characterize face coverings as a low-impact way to help tamp down transmission in indoor settings, where the risk of coronavirus spread is generally higher. Both the L.A. County and California departments of public health strongly recommend residents mask up while indoors in public.
However, when the coronavirus is spreading widely and sending more people to the hospital, Ferrer has argued it makes sense to move from a recommendation to a requirement. Doing so, she said, not only would protect clients and patrons but the county’s workforce and its more vulnerable residents.
But opponents have bristled, arguing such a measure is not needed in a time when vaccines are plentiful and hospitals are nowhere near as stressed as they were earlier in the pandemic. Particularly objectionable to some is the potential return of masking in schools, which has long been a fiercely debated concept throughout California and the nation.
It’s nonsensical, critics alleged, for L.A. County to consider a new order when no other parts of California are doing likewise. And some business groups voiced concerns that the move could hamper their operations, prompt shoppers to take their money elsewhere or put workers in the position of enforcing rules many no longer want to follow.
Ferrer has said she is hopeful that, should a mask order be reinstated, many residents would adhere to it. She said that the rules would require businesses to post signs stating a mask requirement is in effect and that the county public health department would not ask employees to enforce the rules.
In an open letter Monday, county Supervisor Kathryn Barger objected to any renewed mask mandate — writing that she believes such orders are polarizing, unenforceable and “actually distract our collective efforts to decrease COVID-19 infection rates.
“I am not against using masks. I believe ‘masking-up’ makes a lot of sense for individuals who want or need an extra layer of protection,” she wrote. “I support our current COVID-19 public health masking policies, which require their use while using public transportation, in hospitals, homeless shelters and jails. However, imposing a one-size-fits-all masking mandate now for all is not something I can or will support.”
Barger added that she believes “we have not fully examined nor understand the costs associated with imposing masking mandates among our children and youth.
“I’ve heard loud and clear from parents and caregivers who are witnessing the social-emotional toll our county’s children are shouldering,” she wrote. “Their anxiety and depression are palpable.”
L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has previously been supportive of a mask mandate if pandemic conditions did not improve.
“I have no patience for people that don’t wear masks. I mean, I have represented the beach communities for 30 years. There are signs out there that say, ‘No shoes, no shirt, no service,’” she said.
Part of the idea behind mask-wearing, she added, “is to protect other people, and I always have worried about servers, for instance in restaurants, because when we made it a strong recommendation, virtually nobody did it.
“I haven’t seen masks anywhere. I don’t see them in the grocery stores, I don’t see them in the drug stores, and people are just not wearing them when they’re not mandated,” Kuehl said. “So I, for one, hope that we will make a very strong effort to have a mask mandate if we [are in a high COVID-19 community level] because, otherwise, people aren’t going to do it.”
Most of those getting infected nowadays are not falling seriously ill. Officials and experts credit that trend to robust vaccine coverage and ready availability of treatments, as well as general changes in the nature of the coronavirus itself.
So far, the high point of hospitalizations in this latest wave is lower than the peak of any previous surge. And officials note many coronavirus-positive patients are not being treated specifically for COVID-19 but incidentally tested positive upon admission for other reasons.
Though the overall burden of disease is far lower than previously in the pandemic, health officials note that, for some, COVID-19 remains a serious and dangerous foe. From May 1 through Friday, L.A. County recorded 664 COVID-19 deaths.