LA County ends mask order in public transportation, at airports

Los Angeles County will end on Friday are a local health order that requires masking on board public transport or in transport hubs, such as airports.

For months, LA has been the only county in California to still mandate widespread masking in such environments — though some individual operators, most notably the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter rail system, have such regulations in place as well.

LA County health officials had previously cited the increased risks of coronavirus spreading and exposure to transit workers, but with a notable drop in reported cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, health officials said it’s time to relax the order.

Masking is still highly recommended in indoor transport settings – and “from our perspective, [that] means it’s a good idea to keep your mask on,” Barbara Ferrer, director of LA County Public Health, said Thursday.

BART’s board of directors voted 8 to 1 Thursday night to effectively end the Bay Area rail system’s mask mandate next month. The resolution empowers BART’s general manager to impose a new mandate if, among others, the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo or Santa Clara restore indoor masking.

“Because there is no such requirement now, BART’s current mask requirement will end when it expires after October 1, BART officials said. “The first day that masks are not needed is October 2.”

AC Transit, which operates bus services in the East Bay, also has a mask mandate.

LA County officials said they would reinstate a mask mandate on public transit and at transportation hubs if fares rose again.

LA County’s change coincides with the timing of the California Department of Public Health’s plan to lift state-mandated masking in prisons and jails, homeless shelters, and emergency and refrigeration centers in counties with low levels of COVID -19 community level, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Placing in that category — which includes most of California’s counties — indicates the pandemic isn’t having a major impact on hospitals. The CDC updates its community-level ratings, which indicate the rates of novel coronavirus-positive hospitalizations, each week, sorting the counties into low, medium, or high.

In prisons and jails, shelters and cooling centers, state masking orders would still apply if there is an outbreak, or if the facility is located in a county with a medium or high COVID-19 community level.

There were no top-level California counties on Thursday, and only eight in medium: Kern, Stanislaus, Merced, Butte, Tehama, Tuolumne, Glenn and Mariposa. About 95% of Californians live in counties with a low COVID-19 community level.

Masks are still required in health care, long-term and senior care facilities under a state health ordinance. And the state is demanding that businesses and venues, including K-12 schools, “must allow anyone to wear a mask if they want to.”

LA County is also relaxing its recommendation for universal masking in indoor environments, saying instead the practice should be a matter of personal preference in light of declining coronavirus cases. The state is doing the same in counties where hospitalization rates are low.

“I’m hopeful that now that we’ve reached this level where we actually have less dispersion than we’ve seen for a while, people can feel comfortable making those decisions because there’s a lot less carryover,” he said. Ferrer.

County health officials would still strongly recommend certain individuals — including elderly or unvaccinated residents, as well as those with underlying health conditions or who live in high-poverty areas — to mask in higher-risk environments. Such spaces include overcrowded, close contact with others, or poor airflow.

Ferrer also urged people to wear masks on public transport and in hubs such as airports.

The LA County Department of Public Health had previously said it would relax its guidelines when the county fell below the threshold of 100 cases of coronavirus per week for every 100,000 residents.

For the seven-day period ending Thursday, LA County reported 98 coronavirus cases per week for every 100,000 residents.

Ferrer said a transit masking order would be reinstated if the number of cases again exceeded 100 and remained above that threshold for 14 consecutive days.

“You can’t just ignore the higher risk of public transport, especially for public transport workers,” she said. “If the number of cases increases to indicate high transmission, it is appropriate to put in more protection to prevent spread.”

Ferrer has also set out the criteria that would lead to the return of a universal public inner mask mandate – one that has been out of place since early March.

To get to that point, LA County would need to register a significant spread of the coronavirus, as well as a dramatic deterioration in new hospital admissions positive for coronavirus and a significant percentage of hospital beds occupied by patients positive for coronavirus.

Conditions should deteriorate to a point seen only twice before during the pandemic — during the first fall-and-winter wave beginning in late 2020, where morgues were so overwhelmed that the National Guard was called in; and the first Omicron spike to hit after Thanksgiving 2021, causing emergency rooms to flood, ambulances to face delays at hospitals, and to cancel scheduled patient surgeries.

Specifically, LA County would have to hit two hurdles to return to a universal mask order, benchmarks that would be harder to achieve than the plan in effect this summer.

Assuming there is an increased number of coronavirus cases, a universal mask mandate would only return if LA County saw at least 10 new coronavirus-positive hospital admissions per week for every 100,000 residents and at least 10% of all staffed hospital beds occupied by coronavirus-positive patients .

Currently, the province reports 6.5 new coronavirus-positive hospital admissions per week for every 100,000 residents, and only 3.6% of hospital beds are occupied by such patients.

At the height of this summer’s wave, when it appeared that a re-mask order was imminent, LA County hit a peak of 7.2% of hospital beds occupied by coronavirus-positive patients, although it temporarily lost the other hospital admission statistic. exceeded.

“All we’re doing here is really trying to get us to a place where we recognize the importance of having new tools that help us keep each other safe. That’s vaccinations, boosters, tests and therapies,” Ferrer said. “But if we see it spiraling out of control, we need to go back to the strategies that worked before we got our vaccinations and boosters.”

Some LA County mask orders will remain in effect after Friday, including the requirement that anyone exposed to the coronavirus wear a mask for 10 days after an exposure. Exposure to the coronavirus is defined as sharing the same indoor air space for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

Infected individuals in LA County should also stay home for at least five days after their first symptoms or the date of their first positive test if they have no symptoms. They can leave isolation as early as day six if they test negative on a rapid test, and can generally end isolation early on day 11 without the need for a negative test result.

LA County’s masking orders for exposed and infected people are the same as those imposed by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, for workers in a workplace. The California Department of Public Health has similar guidelines for exposed and infected people, but unlike LA County and Cal/OSHA, it sets them with recommendations, not requirements.

California also largely withdraws on Friday its strong recommendation that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — should mask in public areas and indoor businesses. Instead, universal indoor masking is only recommended if a province’s COVID-19 community level is high.

The changes will “give Californians the information to consider when making a mask-wearing decision, including the extent of community dissemination and personal risk,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, California public health director and state health officer, said in a statement. .

California health officials say mask use remains important for protection against infection. In 2021, consistently wearing a face mask in indoor public areas reduced the risk of getting a coronavirus infection, the health ministry said, citing a study it published. And a 10% increase in self-reported mask wearing tripled the chances of slowing community transmission of the coronavirus, officials said, citing a series of nationwide surveys.

Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

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