Los Angeles County is probably weeks away from lifting its indoor mask mandate, and at the latest could ease the order by the end of April — unless a new coronavirus variant poses a threat.
There are two triggers that could result in L.A. County easing its indoor mask mandate, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer announced Tuesday.
The first is the county entering a "moderate" rate of transmission, in which cases fall below 730 a day for two consecutive weeks, Ferrer said.
"We anticipate being able to get to 'moderate' transmission — if we can continue to drive down the rates, as we are right now on our cases — within a few weeks. But we're not there yet," Ferrer said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
L.A. County is averaging about 9,500 cases a day, according to a Times analysis of state data. Case rates in the county are dropping in half every week, Ferrer said. If this pace continues, the county would fall under the goal of 730 cases a day in early March and could exit the indoor mask order two weeks later, according to a Times analysis.
The county's goal matches the recommendations issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends that vaccinated people in indoor public settings wear masks when there are 50 or more cases a week for every 100,000 residents; for L.A. County, this would mean 730 cases a day.
The second condition that would trigger the lifting of the county mask order, Ferrer said, is for eight weeks to elapse after children ages 6 months to 4 years become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering the vaccine for that age group on Feb. 15, and an advisory panel to the CDC is meeting the following week, so it's possible that vaccines could become available by the end of February. This means L.A. County could lift its mask order by the end of April.
"We think the end of April is the sort of endpoint," Ferrer said.
Unlike some of its neighbors, L.A. County is continuing with its rule that residents wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of whether they've been vaccinated. The California Department of Public Health is moving to relax that requirement statewide starting Feb. 16, but L.A. County public health officials say they don't believe it's appropriate for them to follow suit.
"I will say unequivocally that we should not be lifting the masking mandate when we’re reporting thousands and thousands of new cases every day. That doesn’t make sense to us here at Public Health," Ferrer said.
Ferrer said she was confident that L.A. County will end its indoor mask mandate within months, as long as there are no significantly circulating new variants of concern that threaten the vaccines' effectiveness.
"From my perspective, there’s no way this is a 'forever,'" she said. "This has an endpoint. If nothing else, it’s eight weeks after there’s approval of an early child vaccine, but I think we’re going to get there a lot faster if we continue with the decline. The issue is, the decline continues if the protections are in place that really help us limit transmission. And when we remove a lot of those, as we've seen in the past, we tend to see our numbers go back up."
L.A. County's current rate of 9,500 cases a day is one-fifth of the Omicron peak of 44,000 seen in early January. But it's still six times the rate from mid-December, when the county was averaging about 1,600 cases a day — around the same time the state mandated indoor masking in counties that didn't already have a local order.
Some hospitals are still being forced to postpone surgeries and procedures and are not likely to fully recover for a couple of months. The COVID-19 death rate remains high; the county reported as many as 72 deaths a day recently, the highest rate in 11 months.
Some elected officials have voiced frustration that L.A. County's indoor mask rules will not be as lenient as the state's. L.A. County will have stricter rules in place than San Diego, Orange, Riverside or San Bernardino counties, which don't have their own mask orders.
"The state has public health experts that are also advising the governor, and I believe that the recommendation to lift that mandate is based on public health as well," said L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. "And so I just find it very frustrating that, once again, we are being the most restrictive."
But a majority of supervisors have backed Ferrer's approach.
"It's pretty clear to me that we do have to have people still wearing masks," said Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose eastern L.A. County district has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said extending the order until cases decline further will help protect front-line workers from facing maskless customers indoors.
"We've been wearing masks now for two years. I think that we can probably do it for another month or two," Kuehl said. "I support the very thoughtful approach that Dr. Ferrer has presented, because it actually takes the real data in Los Angeles County into account — not what Sacramento thinks should be sort of a flat number or approach for the whole state."
L.A. has had a universal indoor mask requirement in place since July, when the Delta variant of the coronavirus was starting to mushroom countywide. The rule went into effect statewide in mid-December, when the even-more-contagious Omicron variant was starting to take off.
Counties are allowed to adopt rules that are stricter than the state's, but not more lenient.
Other counties with local mask orders are discussing how to handle the expiration of the statewide order next week.
"We are always seeking to do what we can to be the most protective but also flexible. And we are looking at our data and where we are in the Omicron wave and … don't have a decision to share at this point," Santa Clara County's public health director and health officer, Dr. Sara Cody, said Tuesday.
Riverside County "will follow state guidelines dealing with the mask mandate," Jose Arballo Jr., a spokesman with Riverside University Health System-Public Health, wrote in an email Tuesday. "Numbers continue to decline, which is a positive thing."
After Feb. 16, masks will still be required for unvaccinated Californians indoors and for everyone in select settings, such as nursing homes or while aboard public transit.
L.A. County is not alone in recording high transmission rates — virtually every county in California is still classified by the CDC as having a high transmission rate, colored red in its maps.
So even though the state is easing its mask mandate for vaccinated people, transmission rates are still high enough that the CDC recommends that masks continue to be worn by vaccinated people in indoor public settings. The CDC suggests indoor masking when community transmission is "high" or "substantial," the worst of four tiers, and drops that recommendation when transmission is "moderate."
L.A. County has also outlined criteria for easing some of its other mask rules.
Once coronavirus-positive hospitalizations drop below 2,500 for seven straight days, L.A. County will lift mask requirements at outdoor “mega” events — such as those at the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium, SoFi Stadium and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — and at outdoor spaces at child-care settings and K-12 schools. The benchmark was developed in consultation with county hospitals, which agreed that they could return to most of their customary operations with fewer than 2,500 coronavirus-positive patients.
L.A. County won't be able to meet that threshold in time for Sunday's Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. But it could come shortly after that. As of Monday, there were 2,702 coronavirus-positive patients in L.A. County's hospitals, a 27% decline from a week earlier.
It's plausible that the mask requirements for outdoor "mega" events could be lifted later this month.
Although case rates and hospitalizations are declining, deaths are still rising, as it takes time for newly infected people to become severely ill and die. And health officials warn that with transmission rates still high, people should take precautions to avoid getting infected — especially those who are unvaccinated or vulnerable to severe illness.
L.A. County remains more vulnerable during the pandemic than some other parts of the state, such as the Bay Area, because of higher rates of poverty and crowded housing, which can speed transmission of the coronavirus.
In a sign of potentially more moves to come, state officials announced Monday that they are working to update school masking requirements. Currently, everyone on a K-12 campus must wear masks indoors.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.