First published in the March 5 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Los Angeles County officials announced what many residents have been waiting to hear for quite some time: the masks can come off.
Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County public health director, confirmed Thursday that the universal indoor mask mandate would be lifted the following day, aligning with the state’s guidelines of strongly recommending but not requiring residents — regardless of vaccination status — to wear masks in most public indoor settings. The county also relaxed its rules requiring businesses to verify vaccination and testing. Outdoor mega events — such as a baseball game or concert at Dodger Stadium — and indoor portions of businesses — such as bars and nightclubs — will no longer be required to check for vaccination status or a negative test.
However, the updated health order will still require masking on public transit — which is a federal law — and indoor venues to verify vaccination or a recent negative test at events with more than 1,000 people, such as a concert at the Forum or a basketball game at Crypto.com Arena.
Ferrer’s statements came days after the L.A. County Department of Public Health made another major announcement in adopting the state’s masking measures at childcare sites and schools. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that California — along with Oregon and Washington — would no longer require indoor masking at schools beginning March 12, and L.A. County soon after said it would align with the state’s measures in only strongly recommending masking up in indoor public settings.
“California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we’ve learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement. “Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high. We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward.”
Though districts are allowed to continue enforcing masks, Burbank Unified School District Superintendent Matt Hill said that BUSD will align with the county and shed the mask requirement beginning Monday, March 14.
“We will continue to support students and staff who elect to wear masks. Each school site will provide masks or face shields to students or staff who request them,” Hill said in a statement. “In addition, we will follow all other health requirements and we will continue our free testing clinics. Based on the current guidelines, we all should respect each individual’s choice to wear or not wear a mask. We recognize that some individuals will be concerned with this change, but we want to assure you that all of our health and safety precautions will remain in place and we will continue to follow the guidance from health and medical professionals.”
The milestone of no longer requiring masks is just one of many cities and school districts have reached since the U.S. government declared a national state of emergency due to COVID-19 nearly two years ago.
As schools prepared to return to a regular schedule for the 2021-22 academic year, they were dealt with yet another obstacle in the Delta variant, which surged throughout the county last summer and prompted the local officials to re-implement masking mandates and strict health and safety protocols. Then came a more transmissible strain in Omicron that caused an alarming spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths all over the country.
The decision to lift the mask mandate is coming sooner than initially estimated by county health officials due to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated metrics in categorizing risk of transmission.
L.A. County was still considered a high-risk area by the CDC last week but moved into the “low” tier Thursday with the CDC’s modified categorization, which now takes recent COVID-19 hospitalizations into account.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Burbank, was pleased to hear Ferrer’s revised health order was “on the same page” with the state but encouraged L.A. County residents to remain vigilant.
“That doesn’t mean you throw your mask away,” she said. “They do still serve a purpose, so I think it’s important for us to note that moving forward doesn’t mean that masks are irrelevant. It means it’s your choice, but at the same time, recognize that — I think the governor said — we’re moving from a pandemic to an endemic.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl echoed Barger’s comments, saying the county wasn’t “out of the woods, yet” and suggested that residents will have to adjust living to a new normal following the Omicron surge.
“I want to underscore this notion of endemic,” she said. “It might not be a familiar term to a lot of people, but it’s kind of like the common cold is endemic; it’s always with us. People are always going to catch it. It’s just not going away. … It’s not like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re back to normal,’ and it’s difficult because people have suffered enormously in many ways during this pandemic.”
In a virtual briefing Thursday, Ferrer expressed slight concern over the use of the word “endemic” when referring to the coronavirus because she worried people would misinterpret it as the end of COVID-19 and believe it is no longer a threat.
“I think it may be more helpful to understand that COVID-19 is a deadly virus,” she said.
“It’s still with us. It has ebbs and flows and we need to take advantage of the good times that we’re about to be in where we’re really seeing a lot less risk across the board for so many and then be prepared should there be another variant of concern or we experience another surge.
“I hope that when people hear the word endemic, it doesn’t mean to them that we don’t need to do anything, we don’t need to do anything now, we don’t need to do anything to be well prepared because I don’t think either is true,” she added.
Ferrer strongly recommended that L.A. County residents, workers and students continue wearing masks even as cases and hospitalizations plummet and encouraged those who have not yet been vaccinated to consider the shot because it could save their life.
According to county data from Feb. 13-19, fully vaccinated individuals are 18 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are not, and unvaccinated people are four times more likely to be hospitalized when compared to individuals who are vaccinated but not boosted. Those who are vaccinated and received a booster shot are nine times less likely to be hospitalized compared to unvaccinated people.
“While no vaccine is 100% effective, and there is a chance that individuals who have been vaccinated and vaccinated and boosted can become infected,” Ferrer said. “Being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 means that you have a very good chance at preventing infection and that these vaccines remain extremely effective in preventing hospitalizations.”