California is lifting more indoor mask rules. What that means

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With the Omicron wave of the coronavirus flattening, California is about to make more big moves in its mask rules.

Officials said masks will be strongly recommended — but no longer required — for unvaccinated individuals in most indoor settings starting Tuesday.

The statewide requirement that unvaccinated people remain masked in indoor public settings has remained consistent since California fully reopened last June. But the rule has received comparatively less attention, since the state hasn’t required businesses to verify vaccination status for most customers.

In addition, indoor masking will no longer be mandatory at California schools and child care facilities after March 11. It’ll be up to local school districts and private schools to make their own decisions on mask policy.

Here’s what you need to know:

Does this cover the entire state?

While the state’s guidance serves as a baseline for counties, officials note that local health jurisdictions still will be able to keep more restrictive rules if they feel doing so is warranted. But how many will choose that remains an open question.

Most counties in California — including San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura — on Feb. 16 allowed the state’s two-month old universal masking-wearing order in indoor public settings to expire for vaccinated people.

The cities of Long Beach and Pasadena, which operate their own public health departments independent of L.A. County, followed suit on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Certainly, businesses and venues are allowed to make their own decisions on requiring mask use. A number of stores, for instance, have still kept up mask-wearing signs in their businesses.

What about L.A. County?

Los Angeles County is one of the few counties in California that has retained a universal mask-wearing order for anyone age 2 and older in indoor public settings. But public health officials are already expected to make revisions to that rule, given a separate set of recommendations the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Friday.

L.A. County health officials have said they planned to present some options for a new masking policy at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. They said they would then consult with business and labor groups, and a new masking plan could become clearer later this week.

Initially, health officers said they would lift the local requirement for vaccinated people after the region reaches “moderate transmission” as defined by the CDC and remains there for seven days. That would mean recording fewer than 730 new coronavirus cases a day over a weekly period.

But the CDC on Friday relaxed its own guidance as to when members of the public should wear masks in indoor public settings, shifting away from a system centered on coronavirus case and testing positivity rates to a set of criteria that also takes into account COVID-19’s impact on hospitals.

Under this new framework, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking only in areas where the COVID-19 community level is considered to be high. Based on metrics from last week, L.A. County falls within that category, but more recent data indicate the county could be reclassified into the moderate level as soon as this week.

Should I still be wearing a mask anyway?

California is still “strongly recommending” mask-wearing at indoor public places.

Even under the new rules, face coverings still will be required for everyone in certain settings identified by the state or federal government — such as on public transportation or in healthcare settings, correctional facilities, and emergency or homeless shelters.

Some experts said wearing masks in crowded public areas makes sense, even if it is optional.

A recent study by scientists at UC Berkeley and the California Department of Public Health illustrated the effectiveness of masks in preventing coronavirus infection.

The study, published by the CDC, found that those who always wear a mask indoors are less likely to test positive for the coronavirus compared with those who didn’t routinely wear masks.

Those who wore N95 or KN95 masks in public indoor settings had an 83% lower chance of testing positive, and those who wore surgical masks had a 66% lower chance.

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