Starting this weekend, Los Angeles County began requiring everyone to mask up in indoor public spaces as public health officials seek to control a recent spike in infections.
A month after the delta variant became the most dominant in the region, daily case increases have reached levels not seen since March. As of Thursday, the county had reported a week straight of days with more than 1,000 new infections, peaking at 1,537 new cases Thursday.
The new order took effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday everywhere in Los Angeles County, except Pasadena. (Pasadena and Long Beach have their own health departments; Long Beach followed L.A. County with its own mask order, but Pasadena still only recommends everyone mask up.)
Here’s how the revised rules work:
Who does the revised order apply to?
The new mandate applies to everyone, including vaccinated people. That’s because public health officials want to make masking a universal practice, to ensure everyone who needs to is doing it.
“I don’t think in general that self-attestation is actually good and there may be some people who are unvaccinated and don’t want to make that known,” county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said in announcing the revised rules Thursday. “That just puts others at risk.”
Groups who are exempt from the rules remain unchanged from earlier in the pandemic: children under 2 and anyone who can’t safely wear a mask.
The virus is still mainly spreading among people who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. As of July 3, someone who tested positive for coronavirus in the county was over five times more likely to be unvaccinated than vaccinated.
Vaccines remain the best protection against infection, but with inoculation rates declining, officials hope universal masking can help tamp down the virus’ spread.
What spaces does the new indoor mandate cover?
All indoor public spaces and businesses, including:
- Restaurants and bars, when not eating or drinking
- Retail stores
- Family entertainment centers
- Large events like concerts, sports games and conferences
- Government offices
Even before the new mandate, masking was required for everyone in the following spaces:
- Planes, trains, buses, ferries, taxis and ride-shares, and all other forms of public transport
- Transportation hubs like airports, bus terminals, train stations, marinas, ports and subway stations
- Health care facilities
- Correctional facilities and detention centers
- Shelters and cooling centers
- Indoors at any youth facility, such as K-12 schools, child care centers and day camps
People are also encouraged to mask up in crowded outdoor spaces, though it’s not required.
Do I have to wear my mask in restaurants and bars?
When you’re waiting to be seated, yes. Once you start eating and drinking, you can take off your mask.
Davis reminded people that the virus is transmitted through the air and can concentrate indoors, especially in places without good ventilation, so it’s best keep a mask on when not consuming anything.
Are capacity limits returning to public spaces as well?
Currently there are no new physical distancing or business restrictions. But if infections fail to decrease, further steps could be taken.
“Anything is on the table if things continue to get worse, which is why we want to take action now, given that we’re at this level of substantial transmission,” Davis said. “The next level is high transmission, and that’s not a place where we want to be.”
How long will the mandate stay in place?
Public health officials expect to keep the order in effect until community transmission subsides, and it’s unclear when that will happen.
“It’s something we’ll continue to look at and see how things go,” Davis said. “But in general, from what we’ve heard from businesses, it’s easier and better for us to [require universal masking] and it’s much easier for people to understand.”
Why is it needed now?
The county is in different situation than when things first fully reopened June 15. The health order states that case rates of quadrupled since the reopening, and hospitalizations are also up.
On Thursday, Davis announced COVID-19 transmission in L.A. County had very rapidly increased from moderate to substantial based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards. Officials say the risk is highly likely to increase in the coming weeks.
“We really do need to get these numbers down, otherwise we’re going to end up in a situation where more strict measures have to be put in place,” Davis said. “It’s not a place that we want to be.”
The delta variant, which is spread more easily than other versions of the virus, has become the most prevalent variant in L.A. County, putting millions of residents who remain unvaccinated at risk.
Delta has been the county’s most commonly sequenced variant since the beginning of June, making up 71% of all cases sequenced in the most recent data.
How are vaccinations going?
Vaccination rates are slowing in the county, and more progress is needed to close gaps in vaccine coverage, particularly among middle aged Blacks and Latinos, who account for much of the county’s essential workforce.
As of this week, 61% of county residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated, and more than 5 million people total.
But officials want to achieve a vaccination rate of at least 80% to reach herd immunity, which means even unvaccinated people are protected from the virus’ uncontrolled spread. The date the county is expected to get to that number has been repeatedly pushed back, and now it’s not expected to come before fall.
“We continue to see fewer folks than we’d like to see getting their first dose of vaccine, week to week,” Davis said. “As there is currently substantial community transmission of COVID-19 here in L.A. County and in our nation, that urgency to get more people vaccinated remains high.”