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When Can You Stop Wearing a Mask in California? State Says June 15

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Masked pedestrian crosses SF street
A person wearing a mask crosses a street in Union Square in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Don't scrap those masks just yet. California health officials on Monday said the state will wait until its planned reopening date of June 15 to let fully vaccinated Californians take their masks off in most indoor settings.

"This four-week period will give Californians time to prepare for this change while we continue the relentless focus on delivering vaccines, particularly to underserved communities and those that were hard hit throughout this pandemic,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency, touting the "amazing progress" the state has made in its fight against COVID-19.

The announcement comes as more than a dozen other states have already begun lifting their mask mandates after getting the green light from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued new guidance on Thursday that says it is safe for fully vaccinated people to forgo face coverings and social distancing in most indoor settings, including stores and restaurants.

"It's in no way saying that the science or the direction by the CDC is wrong or there's a challenge to it," Ghaly said. "It's really just giving ourselves some additional time to have it implemented with a high degree of integrity, with the continued focus on protecting the public health in mind."

Amid plummeting COVID-19 infections in California and rising inoculation rates, Gov. Gavin Newsom — who is facing a recall election — has been under pressure to ease mask restrictions, and just last week offered conflicting previews on when the state might lift them.

"Until June 15, when California plans to fully reopen our economy, California will keep our existing guidance around masks in place," Ghaly said. "In indoor settings, when you're outside of one's home, including on transportation and in our schools, face coverings continue to be required, regardless of vaccination status."

Only at that point, he said, when the state plans to drop most of its current pandemic-related restrictions, will it implement the CDC’s new masking guidelines that "allow fully vaccinated Californians to go without a mask in most indoor settings."

Even after June 15, California will continue to require mask-wearing in all public schools, in line with CDC guidelines. Masks will also still be required in some public spaces, including hospitals, public transit and congregate housing facilities like nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons.

Ghaly said all businesses in California are expected to adhere to the guidelines, including national chains like Starbucks, Walmart and Trader Joe's, which have already announced they will no longer require customers to don masks in regions where the new CDC guidelines have been adopted. That four-week delay, he added, will help California businesses prepare for the transition to fewer restrictions and give more residents a chance to get vaccinated.

As of Monday, some 15.4 million Californians — almost 40% of the state — had been fully vaccinated against the virus, and the state's positivity rate had fallen to below 1%, among the lowest in the country.

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Under current state rules, people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks outdoors except in specific crowded environments like concerts or sporting events, while unvaccinated people are only required to wear masks outdoors when physical distancing can't be maintained.

The CDC's new mask guidance – an abrupt reversal of recommendations it had issued just weeks earlier – caught many local health officials by surprise, leaving them scrambling to decide whether to ease restrictions in the face of mounting public pressure. And while some health experts and officials say the new guidance is justified given the effectiveness of the vaccines and the drop in case rates, others have criticized the change as premature and confusing.

"My blood is boiling that @CDCgov acted so irresponsibly to adopt an "honor code" for public mask wearing," Ann O'Leary, Newsom's former chief of staff, said on Twitter. "It’s not good public health advice to say to parents whose kids can’t get vaccinated, just trust the public to do the right thing with all the politicization over masks."

Bob Wachter, chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine, commended state officials for sticking to the June 15 timeline.

"Good call - simply too much virus & too many unvaxxed folks who won't [wear] mask for no-mask indoor spaces to be safe now," he said in a tweet on Monday.


Meanwhile, some business leaders said they're concerned the split between state and federal requirements is likely to increase public confusion and put some businesses in difficult positions.

"It's very difficult for small business owners to have to play 'mask cop' on a daily basis," said John Kabateck, director of the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "We hope that they will not be vulnerable to penalties and scrutiny by state regulators or plaintiffs' attorneys because they’re trying to make sense of this labyrinth."

Still, Kabateck said he was generally supportive of the state's decision.

"We’re on our way to a full reopening in California," he said. "If wearing masks for a little bit longer is an ounce of prevention that’s going to let mom-and-pops reopen their doors and get people back to work, that’s a step in the right direction."

This article includes reporting from the Associated Press.

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