Days after his predecessor abruptly quit, Orange County’s new interim health officer said Thursday that he will lift a requirement for residents to wear face coverings in public and instead recommend they do so to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
The move comes three days after Dr. Nichole Quick resigned as the county’s health officer following threats she received at a meeting and on social media over her order for people to wear masks in public when near others. Irate residents blasted the requirement, and the sheriff for the county of 3.2 million people said he wouldn’t enforce it.
Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the county’s health care agency, said he decided on the change after taking a closer look at the state’s virus monitoring criteria as he assumed the health officer role Tuesday.
“We want to be more consistent with the state,” he said, adding that California recommends but doesn’t require the coverings in all public settings. “This does not diminish the importance of face coverings.”
Chau previously said he didn’t want to change the mask order as numerous businesses, including gyms and day camps, prepared to reopen Friday and that he would reevaluate the issue in a few weeks.
Quick issued the order in late May to try to curb the spread of the virus as the county began allowing more businesses to reopen. She then faced threats and protests outside her house and was being provided security in what officials said has become an increasingly stressful job.
Face coverings are required when residents are near others in public in neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties. In Riverside County, they are recommended, not required.
Jim Peterson, executive director of the Orange County Medical Association, said he’s concerned by the change and believes using a mask is a small sacrifice to protect grocery and other essential workers and those with health conditions.
“We think it’s just good public health policy right now,” he said. “We think requiring is better. We highly recommend people wear masks because it’s the only barrier we really have right now.”
Virus cases are rising in nearly half the states, according to an Associated Press analysis, that experts believe the surges are at least partly because of restrictions being lifted.
At least seven senior health officials have quit in California since the pandemic began, and health officials have faced unprecedented pressure, criticism and threats, according to the Health Officers Association of California.
Each California county has a health officer who is a doctor tasked with issuing isolation and quarantine orders. Counties also have health agencies, which may have a separate director.
In recent weeks, residents pleaded for the Orange County Board of Supervisors to lift Quick’s order requiring masks, saying they’re uncomfortable and violate their freedoms. Large numbers of people also sent emails urging officials to keep the mandate, said Frank Kim, the county’s executive officer.
Orange County has reported nearly 8,000 cases of the virus and 202 deaths. For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can cause pneumonia and death.