California Brings Back Temporary Statewide Indoor Mask Mandate as Omicron Cases Rise

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Six people are in a store wearing masks.
An employee at La Copa Loca Gelato helps customers in San Francisco on July 30, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Starting Wednesday, California is bringing back a rule requiring everyone — vaccinated or unvaccinated — to wear a mask indoors, a move aimed at containing the new highly infectious omicron variant of the coronavirus as people gather with family and friends during the holidays.

The new mandate will last until Jan. 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration announced Monday. The order comes as the per capita rate of new COVID-19 cases in California has jumped 47% in the past two weeks.

“We know people are tired and hungry for normalcy. Frankly, I am, too,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Monday. “That said, this is a critical time where we have a tool that we know has worked and can work."

Ghaly noted that even a 10% increase in indoor masking can reduce case transmission significantly and encouraged better ventilation indoors.

California lifted its statewide mask mandate for vaccinated people on June 15, a date Newsom heralded as the state's grand reopening. But since then, a number of county governments representing about half the state's population — including most of the Bay Area —  have imposed their own indoor mask mandates as case rates surged with new variants.

But even in a number those counties, the new state mandate will temporarily roll back rules in certain settings where mask requirements have largely been lifted, including most offices where everyone is vaccinated in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and most public settings in Marin County, where vaccination rates are among the highest in the country.

The new mask mandate will cover people everywhere else in the state, but state officials on Monday were unclear about how it would be enforced. Ghaly said enforcement would likely be stronger in some places than others, but he urged Californians to heed the warnings and wear masks.

“We know that there's going to be people who don't necessarily agree with this, who are tired, who aren't going to mask,” Ghaly said. “We hope that those are few and far between, that most people see the purpose of doing this over the next month as something to protect them and their communities during a very tough time.”

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California also is tightening existing testing requirements by ordering unvaccinated people attending indoor events of 1,000 people or more to have a negative test taken within the past one or two days, depending on the type of test. Additionally, the state is recommending travelers who visit or return to California to get tested within five days of their arrival.

Since the start of the pandemic some 20 months ago, the governor has issued a slew of coronavirus-related mandates, including requiring state employeeshealth care workers and now public school students and teachers to be vaccinated. Newsom's authority to do so exists under the emergency declaration he issued at the beginning of the pandemic, one that will remain in place until either he lifts it or the state Legislature votes to end it.

State Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, a Republican representing the Sacramento suburbs who ran against Newsom for governor during an unsuccessful recall election earlier this year, has routinely tried and failed to get the Democratic-dominated Legislature to end the state’s emergency declaration.

“I think that people are incredibly frustrated with this notion that these choices should be made by one person rather than in the way that our country and state are supposed to work, which is all of us together having a say and having the freedom to make choices for ourselves,” Kiley said. “Gavin Newsom is taking actions that go far beyond what any other governor or any other state has done.”

California joins other states with similar indoor mask mandates, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, Hawaii and New York. But other Democratic governors have resisted new restrictions, including Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, who told Colorado Public Radio last week that “the emergency is over” and “public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear.”

State officials are afraid of a repeat of last winter, when the state averaged more than 100 cases per 100,000 people during a monster winter surge of the virus, and nearly 20,000 people died over eight weeks.

But that surge was before vaccines were available. Today, more than 70% of California's residents who are eligible have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even with the recent increase in cases, the state is averaging a little more than 14 cases per day per 100,000 people.

Even so, Ghaly said hospitals in several counties with low vaccination rates are still struggling with lots of patients; those counties include Riverside, San Bernardino, Mono and Inyo. And, he warned, coronavirus hospitalizations often increase in the weeks following a jump in new cases.

“We are proactively putting this tool of universal indoor masking in public settings in place to ensure we get through a time of joy and hope without a darker cloud of concern and despair,” Ghaly said. “Californians have done this before, and we of course believe we can do it again.”

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