Six Things to Know About California's New Face Mask Rules

Thursday, May 27, 2021

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The federal government has recommended lifting face mask mandates in virtually all situations if you're fully vaccinated. But California adopted a more cautious and stringent approach, and that is causing confusion and frustration among residents.

State officials said they will wait until June 15 to align California guidelines with those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's the day the state wants to reopen the economy fully.

That day will be monumental for Californians, who have lived under some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions in the country as COVID-19 cases surged for months in the nation's most populous state.

Patch spoke to two infectious disease experts about all things masks, vaccines, and confusing guidelines. Here are six things to know.

1. In a sharp turnaround, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people could forgo masks in most situations. But California opted to wait longer. This has caused some confusion. What's going on?

"So I think, actually, California's guidelines are clear, and it's the CDC's recommendations that are confusing," Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of infectious disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Patch. "And it's important to remember the CDC makes recommendations. Enforcement actually occurs at the state level."

Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor of infectious disease at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, concurred. "The CDC guidelines are confusing people," Swartzberg told Patch. "They took a big leap when they should have taken steps."

California's leaders were reluctant to toss their face mask mandate aside completely, especially in underserved lower-income ZIP codes.

Neighboring Oregon and Washington are dealing with their own spring surge, and health officials there are taking deliberate steps toward relaxing restrictions until more people are vaccinated.

2. California has one of the lowest positivity rates in the country. Many other states lifted their mask mandates following the CDC's guidance. What's the logic behind waiting?

"This four-week period will give Californians time to prepare for this change," Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state's health secretary, told reporters Monday.

It's about giving Californians time to adjust, he said. But it also buys the state more time to vaccinate residents.

"I think [Gov. Gavin] Newsom made a good decision to defer following the CDC guidelines until June 15," Swartzberg said. "By then, we'll have a much better idea as to the safer course of action."

About two-thirds of adults in California are at least partially vaccinated, and more than 15 million people — about 47 percent of the population — have been fully vaccinated, according to state data.

"We're on a continuum," Brewer said. "We're also vaccinating people at a rate of about 235,000 doses a day, so every single day, we get closer and closer to having a majority of the population having been vaccinated."

The CDC estimated that about 20 percent of Californians have been infected with the coronavirus, Brewer said.

"Then we're getting into a situation where widespread community transmission is unlikely to happen because of the level of immunity in the underlying population either from vaccination or previous infection," he said.

"At that point, it makes sense to cut back on some of the public health measures we've been taking to control transmission," Brewer said. "I'm not sure you can say there's a specific day, right? Because it's a continuum. June 15 is probably as reasonable as any day you might pick."

3. Another reason California decided to wait longer is that state officials are still scrambling to figure out exactly how to streamline masking rules throughout the different workplace and health jurisdictions in California.

Days after the CDC released its new mask guidance, big box stores and retail chains such as Best Buy, Trader Joe's and Starbucks announced plans to lift their own mask rules.

But after the state dropped the hammer on Monday, retailers with locations in California took a step back.

"For example, here in Los Angeles, [the county public health department] has already contacted Trader Joe's and said, 'No, you have to still require that people there wear masks,' because, again, the regulatory enforcement occurs at the state and county level — not at the federal level."

The state is still ironing out how businesses will handle unmasked patrons and how it will determine who is vaccinated and who isn't. The state will work with businesses and employers in coming weeks to draw up guidance for how different sectors can ensure the mandate is followed, Ghaly said.

4. Californians may need to wear masks well into the summer and fall — depending on where they are in the state.

The mask mandate will lift at the state level on June 15, but county leaders are the ones who hold the real power over mask rules.

"As always, local public health departments can implement local restrictions that are stricter than state guidance," the California Department of Public Health told Patch in a statement.

But the state hasn't clarified how that will work. The state's workplace safety agency — Cal OSHA — was scheduled to meet this week to consider changes to its coronavirus rules and set standards for workplaces.

5. It's unclear how businesses, employers and event coordinators will identify who is fully vaccinated and who isn't.

Guidance on this has been unclear. For now, counties and businesses will need to rely on the honor system. But when will Californians have to show proof of vaccination to walk into a store without a mask? State officials shied away from the question Monday.

"This is exactly why we're giving California time to prepare and think through the implementation of this important new set of guidelines from the CDC," Ghaly said.

The idea of a "vaccine passport" has raised tensions in the Golden State.

Patch conducted a nonscientific survey asking readers whether California should require a vaccine passport for certain situations. About 58 percent of respondents said they were against mandating a statewide vaccine passport; 42 percent said California should mandate a passport.

"I think that if you're going to go that route, you need to make sure that it's applied in a way where everybody truly has the opportunity to be vaccinated, and there's not going to be discrimination or inequities based on whatever reason," Brewer said. "So if you were to ask me this question back in January, I would say, 'No, that's not really fair. ... Not everybody has access.'

"So as long as you have some mechanism in place to avoid ... discrimination," Brewer said. "I don't think that's the worst thing in the world."

6. So what's the most important thing for Californians to remember where rules are shifting and may end up misaligned in different geographical areas?

"The most important thing for Californians to recognize is that the CDC only issued guidelines," Swartzberg said. "People should act based upon their comfort level.

"For me, I'm not going into a public space indoors without a mask on," he said. "Perhaps by June 15, I will be more comfortable doing so. Still, we are lucky to be in [California] where the percent positivity is so low."

California's positivity rate has toggled between 1 percent and 0.9 percent in the last several weeks.

"The single most important thing is if you have not yet been vaccinated, to definitely go ahead and get vaccinated," Brewer said.

"And I think that's part of the motivation behind the CDC's recommendations. I think what they're trying to do is motivate people to become vaccinated by saying, 'See? Life will be closer to what you remember pre-pandemic if you've been vaccinated.'"

Experts agreed that there's also no harm in Californians holding onto their masks.

"If you're more comfortable wearing a mask, there's no problem with that," Brewer said. "There's no side effect or or public health risk from wearing a mask. And I think, for now, until we get a higher level of immunity in the population, it's reasonable in indoor settings where the vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs to still wear masks until we can get more people vaccinated."

Category: COVID-19, California