There still seems to be plenty of Omicron to go around, but starting February 1, San Franciscans will again be able to take their face masks off at the gym and in vaccinated and boosted offices.
The enormity of the Omicron surge in the Bay Area seemed to take some public health officials by surprise in December. Remember when the state granted that exemption for San Francisco and three other Bay Area counties on December 15, allowing them to continue allowing mask-free offices, gyms, and indoor spaces with "stable cohorts"? And then two weeks later, everyone decided to enforce the mask rules again everywhere?
Well, as we reach the end of January and as COVID case numbers are falling, San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip announced Wednesday that the universal mask-mandate exceptions for gyms, offices, etc. will go back into effect on February 1, which is next Tuesday, with a slight update.
"As we come out of this latest surge and face a future in which COVID-19 will remain among us, San Francisco will take a balanced approach in our response to COVID-19 by aligning with state requirements and guidelines where we can do so safely," Dr. Philip said in a statement. "We also acknowledge areas where San Francisco can be further ahead in easing restrictions, such as the indoor mask exemption for stable cohorts, given our highly vaccinated and boosted population. We will do so carefully and by following our local data and the science, as there are still San Franciscans who are medically vulnerable to the disease and communities that remain highly impacted when case rates are high."
The new requirement for going maskless is that everyone have "up-to-date vaccinations," which now includes having a third booster shot of an mRNA vaccine. Boosters will also now be required for all eligible teenagers aged 16 and up who are attending indoor mega-events, such as at the Chase Center. And starting March 1, proof of boosters will be required at these events for kids ages 12 to 15.
San Francisco's current seven-day average of new cases stands at 1,147 as of Thursday. With data reflecting earlier days, the city's rolling-average chart shows the seven-day average at 1,370, down from a peak of 2,244 on January 9. And the city's seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 — a metric that rose to its highest point ever in the pandemic earlier this month — came down to 152 as of Thursday, putting San Francisco County in the bottom half of California counties for per-capita case counts. Kings County, in the Central Valley, has the highest rate with 340 new cases per 100,000 residents, and Los Angeles is second with 259 per 100,000 residents.
The state of California continues to have a universal mask mandate for all indoor public spaces that extends through February 15.
Marin County did not change its rules about gyms and offices this week, but Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis did ease some rules about capacity limits at school sporting events, and he lifted the recommendation for masks at outdoor events.
Contra Costa County and Alameda counties, which had a similar exception to masking for gyms and offices as of early last month, have not yet announced that they will change the rules back.
After many months of indoor masking in most settings, and after a re-mandating of masks that occurred last summer amid the Delta variant surge, San Francisco lifted the mask requirement for gyms, offices, college classes, and places of worship starting in mid-October. The masks came back on as of late December, but a month later, the exceptions are back.
Throughout this surge, bars and nightclubs in SF have been checking vaccination status at the door but still largely allowing people to drink and dance without masks indoors. Some bars around town did close briefly at the beginning of the month, in part due to COVID infections and exposures among staff.
It remains to be seen when or if mask mandates for restaurants, bars, rideshares, or public transit will be lifted anytime this year.
While we will have to get used to COVID being endemic, it remains possible — and some experts say likely — that mask mandates could still return amid other variants, particularly around the next winter holiday season.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images