California will lift mask mandate as omicron cases fall
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California will end its indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people next week but masks still are the rule for schoolchildren, state health officials announced Monday amid rapidly falling coronavirus cases.
After Feb. 15, unvaccinated people still will be required to be masked indoors, and everyone — vaccinated or not — will have to wear masks in higher-risk areas like public transit and nursing homes and other congregate living facilities, officials said. Local governments can continue their own indoor masking requirements and last week Los Angeles County’s health officials said they intend to keep theirs in place beyond the state deadline.
State officials also announced that Indoor “mega events” with more than 1,000 people will have to require vaccinations or negative tests for those attending and those who are unvaccinated will be required to wear masks. For outdoor events with more than 10,000 people, there is no vaccination requirement but masks or negative tests are recommended.
Those thresholds increase from the current 500 attendees for indoor and 5,000 attendees for outdoor events. The increased threshold comes after Sunday’s Super Bowl that will draw as many as 100,000 football fans to SoFi Stadium outside Los Angeles.
With coronavirus cases falling fast, California also is lifting a requirement that people produce a negative coronavirus test before visiting hospitals and nursing homes, effective immediately.
“Omicron has loosened its hold on California, vaccines for children under 5 are around the corner, and access to COVID-19 treatments is improving,” said state Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón. “With things moving in the right direction, we are making responsible modifications to COVID-19 prevention measures, while also continuing to develop a longer-term action plan for the state.”
California has seen a 65% drop in case rates since the peak during the wintertime omicron surge.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration brought back the masking mandate in mid-December as omicron gained momentum and last month extended the requirement through Feb. 15. California passed 80,000 pandemic deaths and 8 million confirmed positive cases last week but new cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions all continued falling Monday and are projected to keep declining at a rapid clip.
Before resuming the masking requirement in December, California had lifted the requirement for people who were vaccinated as of June 15, a date that Newsom had described then as the state’s grand reopening. However, many counties soon reinstituted local mask orders as the summer delta surge took hold.
Newsom, a Democrat, has come under pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the mandates. He recently has said the state is preparing for the day when the coronavirus can be considered endemic, with rules that accept that it is here to stay but can be managed with caution.
“We are glad to see Governor Newsom remove mask mandates on adults, especially since he and other elected officials violate these rules flagrantly in public,” said Jonathan Keller, president of the conservative California Family Council, referring to Newsom and others removing their masks at a football game last month. “But this isn’t good enough. We should free our children as well, especially since COVID-19 poses the least danger to minors out of any age group.”
Health officials said Monday that more changes to the state’s policies will be released in the coming week.
The developments in California come as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon announced plans to end statewide school mask mandates by the end of February or March. They are among a dozen states with mask mandates in schools.
“Even states as blue as New Jersey and Oregon are doing away with harmful mask mandates in school,” said state Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson. “That California would ease certain rules without putting our K-12 students first is disgraceful.”
California health officials said Monday that they are “continuing to work with education, public health and community leaders to update masking requirements at schools to adapt to changing conditions and ensure the safety of kids, teachers, and staff.”
Last week, Los Angeles County public health director Barbara Ferrer said the winter surge will be considered over in the nation’s most populous county when hospitalizations fall below 2,500 for seven days in a row. The county will then end its mask requirement for large outdoor events such as concerts and sporting events and for outdoor spaces at schools and child-care facilities.
It plans to keep indoor mask requirements in place until the county has two straight weeks at or below a “moderate” rate of 50 new cases per 100,000 people and there aren’t any reports of a new, troubling variant circulating, Ferrer said. The current rate is 117 cases per 100,000 people.
Health officials continue emphasizing that those most at risk for the virus are the unvaccinated, and that booster shots in particular provide significant protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.