L.A. County’s director of public health Monday said officials have been contacting a number of retail chains to emphasize that existing rules that require everyone to wear masks indoors in a store remain in effect in California.
The education effort came after the Trader Joe’s in South Pasadena posted a sign in front of its store on Friday that gave permission for vaccinated shoppers to enter its market without a mask — a policy that violates California orders.
“Our teams are out notifying all of the chains that have made announcements nationally that they would be relaxing their masking requirements” that California’s mandatory mask policy within stores statewide remains in effect, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
“Absolutely, masking requirements are in place here and all across California,” Ferrer said. “So this is going to be pretty easy for businesses and customers, residents and visitors to understand — because there’s one standard for the whole state. And it requires that we continue to wear our masks until June 15.”
Ferrer welcomed the state’s announcement Monday that existing mask requirements, last relaxed on May 3, are set to last until June 15, which she said would continue to protect people who are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated until they can complete a COVID-19 vaccine regimen.
The state’s announcement came four days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its recommendations for mask use, which said the CDC no longer suggests it’s necessary for fully vaccinated people to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings, with certain exceptions, including wearing a mask in public transit settings.
But the CDC’s changing guidance, while influential, is just a recommendation, and it’s up to state and local authorities whether to ease mask mandates.
Relaxing mask orders too early, some experts fear, could result in increased spread of the coronavirus if unvaccinated people ignore CDC guidance and decide to enter public areas without wearing masks — a choice that would be made easier if fully vaccinated people are unmasked. Loosening mask rules too early is “a risk that we think is unnecessary for us to take. And it could in fact delay our progress on the recovery journey,” Ferrer said.
Retaining a mandatory mask rule for everyone inside a store will reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission among unvaccinated people and help protect children under 12 who are unable to be inoculated, Ferrer said.
The last several days have produced confusion over masking policy nationwide. After the CDC on Thursday changed its recommendations to say that it was no longer necessary for fully vaccinated people to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings, a number of chains —including Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Costco — said they would no longer require fully vaccinated shoppers to wear masks inside their stores.
Some chains specified that they would follow stricter state and local mask orders. Some states, including California, did not immediately respond to the CDC’s changing guidance.
The abrupt change in guidance probably was a factor in one recent verbal confrontation captured on video by a shopper arguing with a Costco worker in L.A. County, who said he could not be let in the store without wearing a mask.
Ferrer said she appreciated that the CDC was trying to present information about the effectiveness of the vaccines, but also noted that the agency’s director has been clear that local and state officials have the final word on local mask requirements. We have a “responsibility to, in fact, make sure that we’re preventing outbreaks and increases in cases,” Ferrer said.
Retaining mask requirements through June 15 in California, Ferrer said, “is a sensible path forward that allows us time to get more people fully vaccinated.” Ferrer said unless something unexpected happens, she anticipates L.A. County will move along with the rest of California in a reopening of the economy on June 15.
“At this point, we feel very comfortable being aligned with the state,” Ferrer said. “The sensible path forward that the governor has outlined makes a lot of sense. So I think barring something fundamentally different happening here in L.A. County that would really bring about cause for great concern, you can see us embracing the June 15 reopening plan.
“Let’s get as many people as possible vaccinated. … If we can do this well, then when we do these full reopenings, the risk is just super low,” Ferrer said. “And that helps all of us. Nobody wants to be part of an outbreak any longer. Nobody wants to end up in the hospital. And nobody wants to be dying from COVID.”
More than 95% of people newly infected with the coronavirus have not been fully vaccinated, Ferrer said, and “pretty much everyone in the hospital is not fully vaccinated, and just about everyone who’s passing away right now is not fully vaccinated. We need to do a really good job getting people vaccinated and I think we will, and I look forward to joining with the governor with a statewide sensible reopening come June 15,” Ferrer said.
Other factors in how masking requirements might change — or not — after June 15 are California’s occupational health and safety standards, which are approved by a standards board and govern masking and physical distancing protocols at work sites.
Even in suggested changes the occupational health and safety’s standards board is considering later this week, Ferrer said “there is no indication that they are at all backing away from having at many work sites … the requirements around distancing and masking.”
“We’re going to go ahead and follow whatever Cal/OSHA asks our workplaces to do,” Ferrer said.