Orange County rescinds coronavirus mask mandate amid pushback, resignation

Luke Money, Hannah Fry, Stephanie Lai
People walk along Harbor Boulevard in downtown Fullerton on Thursday.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County residents no longer have to wear masks in public, officials announced Thursday — an abrupt shift in health orders following weeks of debate over the use of face coverings to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Masks will go from being required to being strongly recommended in public settings under a revised order from new Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau.

Chau said at a news conference that he would issue the new order later Thursday.

"I want to be clear: This does not diminish the importance of face coverings," he said. "I stand with the public health experts and believe wearing cloth face coverings helps to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community and save lives. By being consistent with the state, this will give our business community and individuals the ability to make the most appropriate decision for them and their situation."

The county's goal is to make its mask rules consistent with the state's. Above, Harbor Boulevard in downtown Fullerton.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The new order, he said, "will no longer require that most residents wear a face covering, but strongly recommends that they should when outside of their home and unable to physically distance themselves by six feet from others."

At several points on Thursday, Chau said the motivation was to make the county's mask rules consistent with the state's.

"This decision is not because of public pushback," he said.

County Supervisor Michelle Steel cautioned that if residents are feeling ill, they should stay home, but if they are out, "it is strongly recommended to wear a mask and social distance."

"Public health is at the utmost importance during this crisis," she said.

The mask dispute has unfolded as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Orange County.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The less-stringent recommendation had been in place until late May, when former county health officer Dr. Nichole Quick issued an order mandating that county residents and visitors wear cloth face coverings while in a public place, at work or visiting a business where they are unable to stay at least six feet apart.

The switch set off a firestorm of controversy as some residents and elected officials challenged the need for the widespread use of face coverings as more businesses in the region continued to reopen.

Quick herself became a target for criticism during county Board of Supervisors meetings, with some residents castigating her for the order. During one meeting, public speakers displayed a poster showing Quick’s photo with a Hitler mustache on her face and swastikas.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department provided a security detail for the doctor after she received what officials deemed to be a death threat during a meeting last month.

After several intense weeks defending her order, Quick resigned Monday. The county agreed to pay her $75,000 in severance in exchange for her decision to leave voluntarily, according to a signed settlement and release agreement.

On Tuesday, Chau stepped into Quick's role and was immediately peppered with questions from elected officials about the need for a mask order. Members of the public could be heard shouting in the background as Chau responded to questions from the board.

"There's always going to be community infection going on," Supervisor Don Wagner said. "There's always flu infection going on. Are you telling us masks, in your professional opinion, are going to be necessary until the end of time or until there's a vaccine or what?"

Chau later said he planned to look at the county’s infection rate and hospitalization numbers over the next 21 days as more public spaces continue to reopen to determine whether those numbers show it is safe to amend the mask order.

The dispute over the requirement has unfolded as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Orange County.

Health officials reported 260 new coronavirus infections Thursday, boosting the county's cumulative case count to 7,987. Of those, an estimated 3,726 people have already recovered.

Thursday saw the third-most new cases on any one day in the county since the pandemic began. The three largest single-day increases have all occurred within the past week.

The county also announced four new fatalities, raising the death toll to 202. Of those who have died, 94 were residents of skilled-nursing facilities, according to the county.

But Orange County officials said other data points — such as death and testing positivity rates — paint a more promising picture, as both compare favorably to neighboring counties.

"While we are not out of this completely yet, Orange County is in good position to continue moving forward, and we have reason to be positive about where we are," Steel said.

The move to alter the county's order also comes as the region prepares to reopen additional sectors of its economy. Chau's new health order will further relax restrictions on businesses to allow bars, wineries, movie theaters, gyms, community pools, zoos, hotels and other spaces to reopen, he said.

Many health officials say that face coverings are an integral tool in the fight against COVID-19 — as they can block transmission of the respiratory droplets released by asymptomatic people when breathing or talking.

Research published by Cambridge University Press in 2013 found that homemade cloth masks significantly reduced the amount of potentially infectious droplets expelled by the wearer.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% to 50% of infected people never show symptoms of illness yet may be just as contagious as those who are visibly sick.

“Masks provide a hell of a lot of protection. And I’m more comfortable relaxing things if everybody is wearing masks than if they weren’t,” Dr. George Rutherford, a UC San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert, said recently.

But whether wearing masks should be recommended or mandated has become the subject of impassioned debate in Southern California. Some counties, including Los Angeles and San Diego, require residents to wear masks in public settings.

Doing so is only strongly recommended in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Like Orange County, both had mask requirements but later walked them back.

Dr. Geoffrey Leung, ambulatory medical director for the Riverside University Health System, said wearing masks not only helps prevent the unintentional sharing of respiratory droplets, but can keep people from touching their faces and provide a gentle social cue to remind people to maintain physical distancing.

Despite those benefits, he said the question of whether to require masks "is more complicated than most of us think."

"If you are taking a walk outside by yourself and there’s no one nearby, or you’re biking, does it make sense to be required to wear a mask?" he said Thursday. "I think what we're realizing is we really need to ask people to apply their best judgment and their common sense."

Even without a mandate, though, Riverside County officials stress that residents should wear masks, particularly as more businesses and public spaces reopen.

"I do think, as more and more evidence has come out, it’s been fairly consistent in showing that it looks like covering the face is beneficial and it does reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus," Leung said.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has routinely touted the health benefits of wearing face coverings in public. That, along with other practices like physical distancing and regular hand washing, can stave off a spike in coronavirus infections, she's said.

“It remains so important for all of us, businesses and residents, to follow the directives and to do our part every day to keep ourselves and our friends, our loved ones and our families as safe as possible,” she said Wednesday. “This is really the only way for us to reopen without creating huge increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19."

Leaders in Orange County, however, have noted that not everyone was adhering to the mask requirement and that law enforcement, including the Sheriff's Department, had said they would not enforce the mandate.

Over the past several days, county staff continued discussions with Chau about the mask order.

Dozens of residents pledged their support for the mask requirement publicly and in letters to the Board of Supervisors.

Shoppers at a newly reopened South Coast Plaza were split on the issue Thursday.

While waiting for his wife outside the Gap store in the Costa Mesa shopping center, Andrew de Guia, a 73-year-old Chino Hills resident, said he plans to continue wearing a face covering, likely until July.

As he spoke to a reporter, he was careful to keep his distance from other shoppers during the upscale mall's first day of business after a months-long closure amid the pandemic.

“I’m used to wearing a face mask,” he said.

Nearby, 56-year-old Westminster resident Irene Bunya said she disagrees with the county's decision to lift the mask requirement.

“My immune system is compromised, so I will likely keep wearing a mask for the next few months,” Bunya said. “I think the worst is over, but I’m not sure about when flu season picks up.”

On her way to what would be a long shift at Louis Vuitton, where nearly 30 customers were lined up out front, 40-year-old Irvine resident Janelle Aranda bemoaned having to wear a face mask during work.

Aranda said she feels masks are harmful because she will breathe in carbon dioxide for the six hours she has to wear one.

Pay Wykoff — a 65-year-old Irvine resident who waited weeks to come to South Coast Plaza to get a watch battery and find a Father’s Day present — wore a bright yellow hand-sewn mask but said she thought it was unnecessary.

“Not everyone agrees that masks are helpful," Wykoff said. "I think masks are hurtful because you’re breathing in your own germs.”

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.