L.A. reinstates mask mandate as Delta variant spreads

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Pedestrians wear masks as they walk in front of a sign reminding the public to take steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Glendale, Calif. | Chris Pizzello/AP Photo

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OAKLAND — Los Angeles County will reinstate indoor mask requirements in public spaces for all this weekend, regardless of vaccination status, amid an alarming rise in Covid-19 cases driven by the Delta variant.

Thursday’s announcement by the nation's largest county sent a chill through the state just one month into California's long-awaited reopening. And it could prompt other local health officials to follow suit, complicating the post-pandemic recovery narrative of Gov. Gavin Newsom as he faces a September recall election.

Los Angeles County just over two weeks ago recommended that people wear masks indoors, a step that Sacramento County health officials also took on Thursday and that Yolo County initiated a day earlier.

The rise of the Delta variant has caused case rates to double nationwide over the past three weeks. On Thursday the state reported 3,622 new cases as part of a startling trend in the wake of the state’s June 15 reopening.

While California started from a relatively low level, the trajectory and speed at which the more transmissible Delta variant has spread is sounding alarms and causing public health officials to rethink their infection-control strategies.

“Across the state we are seeing increases in cases,” said Marin County Public Health Officer Matt Willis, who is considering a recommendation for indoor masking, but not a mandate. “All of us right now — public health officers — are sharing the same challenge: What is the next step for us to reduce transmission?”

A steep rise has pushed Los Angeles County’s case rate to 7.1 per 100,000 residents, which puts the region in the “substantial” category of spread, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That would also have put the county in the second-most restrictive tier under the state’s now-retired reopening blueprint.

The new order will go into effect late Saturday, just before midnight.

“It is clear that the Delta variant is here and spreading rapidly, overwhelmingly in our unvaccinated communities, and we need to take action now before we see uncontrollable spread,” Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis said on Twitter.

Solis called the move “only a temporary action, until we can lower our cases and continue getting more people the doses they need.”

So far, despite the rising cases in parts of the state, only a small number of counties have even recommended people wear masks indoors.

Sacramento County health officials on Thursday made the recommendation after noting a “drastic” rise in cases. Neighboring Yolo County made a similar announcement the day earlier.

Local health officials in the Bay Area have been reluctant to tighten their indoor mask restrictions, though the region was at the center of the early guidance in the pandemic, becoming the first in the nation to issue a statewide stay-at-home order.

In Marin County, the Delta variant has driven the case rate to 4.4 per 100,000. Willis, the county’s public health officer, noted that the county’s case rate has quadrupled over the past month, and one in four infections are found in residents who are fully vaccinated.

Due to high vaccination rates and relatively low transmission in the county, Willis said he’s not inclined to reinstate a mask mandate, but is strongly considering a recommendation. “By seeing increases in breakthrough cases, we think there’s a clear rationale for that policy measure, but we haven’t finalized that decision,” he said.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said the city continues to align with state guidance requiring people who are not yet fully vaccinated wear masks indoors or at large outdoor events.

“Those who are vaccinated can choose to wear masks if they feel more comfortable doing so. We continue to follow emerging data and science and will adjust this approach to expand masking recommendations, if necessary,” San Francisco officials said in a statement.

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