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California's mask mandate expires next week for vaccinated residents


California will approach another pandemic turning point - dropping the indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people. I asked Jackie Fortier, senior health reporter at member station KPCC, why California's mask mandate is changing now.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: When omicron was cascading in early December, California health officials decided to impose a one-month indoor mask mandate for everyone age 2 and up, regardless of their vaccination status. And then in January, when case counts exploded and hospitals were again slammed as, you know, health workers tested positive, the mask mandate was extended for another month to try to prevent more people from getting infected. So now that the omicron surge is rapidly receding, state health officials decided to let the mask mandate expire. So after February 15, in many parts of the state, vaccinated Californians will no longer be required to wear a mask if they don't want to.

MARTIN: Many parts of the state. Can you be more specific?

FORTIER: Yeah. Really most of California you won't have to, including rural areas where local officials didn't impose mask mandates, as well as, you know, more conservative places, like Orange County here in Southern California. But, you know, masks aren't going away completely. All unvaccinated people will be required to wear masks indoors and everyone in high-risk settings, like nursing homes, hospitals and shelters. And so far, there has been no date set to lift the statewide mask mandate in K-12 schools.

MARTIN: But the mask mandates are going to stay in place altogether in some parts of California. LA County, for one, right? What's the rationale there?

FORTIER: Right. So counties and municipalities are allowed to have stricter rules than the state. And LA County health officials say there's just too many people still getting infected. LA County health director Barbara Ferrer said essential workers will pay the price for lifting the mask mandate too early.

BARBARA FERRER: The same essential workers who, from the beginning of the pandemic, have had the most risk, the highest case rates and, unfortunately and tragically, a high hospitalization and death rate. So let's not have that happen again in our rush to sort of declare victory over the pandemic.

FORTIER: Under the new criteria announced last week, masks will come off in LA County as community transmission declines - first outdoors at schools, and then when transmission drops even lower, indoors at offices and restaurants. So that means that thousands of fans attending the Super Bowl in LA County on Sunday will need to mask up.

MARTIN: So, as Leila noted, this leaves a sort of patchwork - right? - of mask mandates around the state. So you don't wear a mask where you're from. Maybe you drive across the county line, you got to put one on. What are the larger implications of that?

MARTIN: Yeah, it's confusing for people, especially for those, like you said, who live in one county and work in another. A lot of people live in San Bernardino County because it's cheaper and then work in LA County, where they'd have to wear a mask and then, you know, when they drive home, go out to eat in San Bernardino, they wouldn't have to wear a mask. Individual businesses can still require masks when you get up from the table. But the county mandate really provides cover for business owners who do want customers to wear masks. You know, it's easier to say, hey, it's the health department rules than to say it's our own restaurant's policy.

MARTIN: Right. Health Reporter Jackie Fortier from KPCC in Los Angeles. Thank you, Jackie. We appreciate it.

FORTIER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OATY.'S "MAI TAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Fortier