One month ago, Los Angeles County and the rest of California celebrated a long-awaited reopening, marking the tremendous progress made in the battle against COVID-19 by lifting virtually all restrictions on businesses and other public spaces.
Now, the coronavirus is resurgent, and the nation’s most-populous county is scrambling to beat back the latest charge of a pandemic.
Starting Saturday night, residents will again be required to wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of their vaccination status.
The latest order not only puts the county further at odds with both the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — both of which continue to maintain that vaccinated people need not cover their faces indoors — but puts officials in the precarious position of asking the inoculated to forfeit one of the benefits recently enjoyed.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Dr. Muntu Davis, the county’s health officer.
The new order, which comes a little more than two weeks after the county recommended the same protocols as a precaution, will go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday — and Davis said it will be similar to the requirements that were in place before the June 15 reopening.
“We’re not where we need to be for the millions at risk of infection here in Los Angeles County, and waiting to do something will be too late given what we’re seeing now,” he told reporters Thursday.
The order will continue to allow indoor restaurant dining, although people will need to keep their masks on when they’re not eating or drinking.
It will apply everywhere in the county except Long Beach and Pasadena, which have their own independent health departments. Both cities said Thursday that they already recommend everyone, even the fully vaccinated, wear masks in crowded indoor settings, though Pasadena is “reviewing options for a mandate,” according to a spokeswoman.
L.A. County has seen a steep increase in coronavirus cases of late. During the weeklong period that ended Wednesday, the county reported an average of 1,077 new cases each day — a 261% hike from two weeks prior, according to data compiled by The Times.
On Thursday, Davis reported 1,537 additional cases.
An uptick in cases, combined with the presence of the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus, was behind L.A. County’s urging in late June that all residents wear masks in public indoor spaces.
Cases have increased rapidly since then, and county health officials now believe more direct intervention is needed.
Davis said he expects the new order will remain “in place until we begin to see improvements” in community transmission.
He characterized universal indoor masking as one of the more effective ways to curb the spread without interrupting operations at businesses and venues.
But, he acknowledged, further intervention could be necessary if conditions deteriorate.
“Anything is on the table if things continue to get worse, which is why we want to take action now,” he said.
He emphasized, though, that the increase in cases is overwhelmingly taking place among those who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Data show that those who have completed their inoculation course remain well protected — including against the Delta variant, which is believed to be twice as transmissible as the conventional coronavirus strains.
The new mask order, he said, “really is about making this a universal practice. It’s the easiest thing to do in terms of ensuring that we’re all protected, regardless of the risks that we have.”
Still, the renewed restrictions in L.A. County are undoubtedly a blow to a populace eager to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror.
“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,” Hilda Solis, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, said in a statement.
She added, “This is only a temporary action, until we can lower our cases and continue getting more people the doses they need.”
But with similar increases across the state, other counties are also urging residents to take additional precautions.
“The drastic increase in cases is concerning — as is the number of people choosing not to get vaccinated,” Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye said in a statement. “Our best protection against COVID-19 continues to be the vaccine. We urge all eligible residents to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves, and their family and friends.”
Statewide guidance on face coverings remains unchanged, according to the California Department of Public Health. However, the department “supports local health departments, like Los Angeles County, making stricter policies based on the conditions in their community.”
“Vaccines remain the best protection against COVID-19, including the highly infectious Delta variant,” officials wrote in a statement to The Times. “We urge all eligible to get vaccinated, as it is the most important thing we can do to stop the spread of the virus.”
Already, cases are ballooning across California.
Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties have all had their daily case averages more than double since late June, and the state’s latest weekly average of 2,980 new coronavirus cases per day is up 175% from two weeks ago.
The CDC now considers L.A., San Bernardino and San Diego, along with Riverside County, to have “substantial” community transmission — the second-worst classification on the agency’s four-tier scale — as all recently recorded seven-day case rates that were over 50 per 100,000 residents.
California as a whole is still categorized as having “moderate” community transmission, the second-lowest tier.
Despite increasingly urgent calls to get vaccinated as cases rise, California’s inoculation pace continues to tail off.
Over the last seven days, providers throughout California have administered an average of just over 56,000 doses per day, Times’ data show. Though that figure could rise as more reports come in, it won’t be anywhere near the high of the rollout, when hundreds of thousands of shots were going into Californians’ arms each day.
Health officials say there are many reasons why a person may be unvaccinated.
Some may still be too young to receive the shots, or have an underlying health condition that prevents them from doing so. Others may be wary of potential side effects, or unable to get the time off work.
Another common sticking point is that all three available vaccines have been authorized only for emergency use at this point, and haven’t yet received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, there’s undoubtedly a segment of the population that’s steadfastly opposed to getting inoculated — either for personal or political reasons, or because they’ve come to believe some of the vaccine disinformation that’s spread widely on social media.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Thursday outlining the dangers of health misinformation.
Such advisories are typically reserved for urgent public health threats, and Murthy said myths swirling around the vaccines — like the persistent but inaccurate belief that you can get COVID-19 from the shots — qualifies as such.
“Misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones,” he said during a White House press briefing. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings. It’s led them to turn down proven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated. This has led to avoidable illnesses and deaths.”