Bay Area Health Officials Release Plans for Lifting Indoor Mask Requirements

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Two women with masks in a high-ceilinged, brightly lit public market.
Two women wait for their drink order at The Public Market in Emeryville, California, on July 28, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Most Bay Area counties on Thursday announced criteria for eventually lifting mask mandates for indoor public spaces, including in bars, gyms and entertainment venues.

Health officers in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties and the city of Berkeley (which has its own health department) said they would lift masking requirements when their respective jurisdictions have reached three key benchmarks:

  • When that jurisdiction has moved into the yellow or "moderate" COVID-19 transmission tier — as established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and remained there for a least three straight weeks.
  • When COVID-19 hospitalizations are "low and stable," as determined by local health officials.
  • When 80% of each jurisdiction's total population is fully vaccinated (two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), or when eight weeks have passed since federal emergency authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for children age 5 to 11.

But getting there will likely take some time.

Most Bay Area counties are currently in the orange — or "substantial" — transmission tier, according to the latest CDC reporting, and none are yet in the yellow.

Additionally, none have reached 80% vaccination among their full populations — which includes kids — although all but two of the eight counties have topped 70%.

See a map of vaccination rates by county.

But local officials say COVID-19 rates have dropped significantly throughout the region, following this summer's spike brought on by the highly contagious delta variant.

"Our regional data is showing that the surge is now receding, and the Bay Area is one of the most vaccinated regions in the country," Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County's health officer, said on Thursday. "So it is time to really plan for our next phase and an easing of some of these requirements."

He said meeting the third metric — reaching an 80% vaccination rate or being able to give the vaccines to younger kids — is especially important.

It will "ensure that enough of the community is vaccinated to give us a fair degree of confidence that removing the mask requirement will not trigger another severe surge of cases and hospitalizations like we saw that began in late June and July with the arrival of the delta strain," he said.

Some 72% of all residents in Contra Costa County are now fully vaccinated, and Farnitano predicted that, at the current pace, the county would crest 80% in the next two to three months.

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Thursday that, despite not yet meeting the criteria, the city — where more than 75% of residents are fully vaccinated — will forge ahead next week in easing its indoor mask requirements for some settings. Beginning Oct. 15, San Francisco will allow those in indoor settings with fewer than 100 people, like small offices, gyms and indoor college classes, to forgo face coverings if everyone can verify they are fully vaccinated.

"This is an important step forward for San Francisco, particularly for our downtown, because when I talk to office workers and business leaders, one of the things I continue to hear is that they’re anxious to get back to a more normal routine at work where they can interact with their colleagues," Breed said in a statement.

The new guidelines do not pertain to Solano County, which is the only Bay Area county that did not issue a mask mandate in early August, amid the new wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Dr. Sara Cody, the health officer for Santa Clara County, where 75% of all residents are now fully vaccinated, stressed the importance of meeting all three benchmarks before lifting mask mandates.

"Essentially, we want to ensure that we have many layers of prevention," she said. "We want to make sure that the vaccination layer is really robust before we peel back the masking layer.

There are roughly 175,000 kids age 5-11 in her county, Cody said, and making the vaccine available to them once federal officials give the green light will be a top priority.

"So that's the size of the population that we anticipate will become newly eligible for vaccination," she said. "And that's the population that we're going to be working very hard to ensure that there's easy, accessible vaccinations available."

The new guidelines come as Pfizer on Thursday asked federal officials to allow use of its vaccine for kids age 5 to 11. However, there is no clear timeline yet on when the shot will be approved for this age group.

When counties meet all three criteria and lift their mask mandates, residents will still be required to observe state and federal indoor mask rules, which include wearing a face covering when using public transportation and in state and federal buildings.

Individual businesses and places of worship also can still require people to wear masks even after their county's mask order has been lifted.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, shared with KQED that it's very likely that each county will fulfill all three requirements at different times. But he believes that the criteria provides a clear path that a county needs to take to move past mask mandates.

"It gives us some guideposts, instead of operating in a fog," he said. "The criteria are transparent, so people know what we are looking at."

This post includes reporting from KQED's Ted Goldberg, Matthew Green and Tara Siler.