You may now be allowed to remove your facial covering inside a Trader Joe's or Starbucks if you cross the border into Nevada. But in California for the next four weeks, masks are still going to be mandatory for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated in most indoor settings, on public transit, etc.
California's Health & Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly issued a statement Monday clarifying the state's position following the CDC's surprise announcement last week about the national mask mandate. And while there was almost no question that San Francisco was going to stick to stricter rules for at least another month, we now have the official word from the state's top public health official: June 15 is when masks can come off (in some settings).
"On June 15, California plans to implement the CDC’s guidelines around masking to allow fully vaccinated Californians to go without a mask in most indoor settings," Ghaly said. "This four-week period will give Californians time to prepare for this change while we continue our relentless focus on delivering vaccines, particularly in underserved communities."
June 15 has been the magical date on which Governor Gavin Newsom pinned hopes for the full reopening of the state's economy, and the tossing out of the four-color tiered "blueprint" system of restrictions based on new case counts. But questions continue to be raised about the wisdom of tossing out all restrictions when vaccination hesitancy remains strong in some California counties, and while daily new case levels remain "substantial" under the state's metric in almost a dozen NorCal counties — including a band that stretches from the Sierra through Sacramento and Solano counties, and down into the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced.
As of May 11, in addition to the 11 counties in the "Red" tier for reopening, the majority of the state's counties are in the "Orange" tier meaning "moderate" spread of COVID is still occurring — defined as two to six new cases per day per 100,000 residents, and test-positivity rates between 2% and 5% on a seven-day average.
As of Sunday, May 16, there were still 1,380 COVID patients in California hospitals, though the number of hospitalizations has been dropping steadily since early April. ICU availability across the state stands at 34% — which means that on average, including patients with other ailments, 66% of ICU beds are occupied.
In the Bay Area alone, nearly 400 people have died from COVID since vaccines became widely available on April 15.
There is also the question of indoor performance events and large outdoor events, and whether California is going to set up a system for showing proof of vaccination status to attend. Many events are already requiring people to attest to their vaccination status, but showing proof has not yet become a widespread phenomenon, and the ACLU and others are already discussing this as having civil rights implications. The federal government has already said it will not be rolling out any sort of national vaccine passport.
Almost 21 million Californians (53% of the population) had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine as of Sunday, and 15.2 million (38.4%) were fully vaccinated.
"We continue to urge from the mountaintops that all Californians to get vaccinated and that we can all return to those activities we love and have been missing for so long," Ghaly said in his statement.
Across the country, at least a dozen states including Texas and Florida have allowed mask mandates to expire, and like everything else with this pandemic, this has largely broken down along political lines. Still, New York State and others with Democratic governors are saying they will comply with the CDC guidelines starting this week, requiring masks only for certain indoor settings and on public transit.
One of the more frequent commentators on the pandemic in the Bay Area, UCSF's Dr. Bob Wachter, said Monday morning that he cheered California decision to hold off another month before masks come off.
"I've come to believe that new CDC recs are premature," Wachter said on Twitter, ahead of Ghaly's announcement, which he already knew was coming.
"Good call — simply too much virus [and] too many unvaxxed folks who won't [wear] masks for no-mask indoor spaces to be safe now," he said, noting that by mid-June, vaccination numbers will at least be higher.
I've come to believe that new CDC recs are premature. I have it on good authority that CA will wait on following them till 6/15, when vax #s are up. Good call – simply too much virus & too many unvaxxed folks who won't masks for no-mask indoor spaces to be safe now.— Bob Wachter (@Bob_Wachter) May 17, 2021
Photo: Vera Davidova