Indoor mask mandate is back effective Wednesday, state says, even if you’re vaccinated

Iris Hirsh stands in line with her grandkids Jackso,n,9, Max,11, and Sophia 8 at Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar.
Iris Hirsh stands in line for refreshments with her grandkids Jackson,9, Max,11, and Sophia 8 at Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
(Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Return to face coverings mandate comes as Omicron variant begins to spread across California


Starting Wednesday, masks will once again be required in public places from grocery stores, restaurants and bars to gyms, movie theaters and churches.

Announced Monday afternoon by Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, the return of mask mandates elicited immediate vows of civil disobedience from some grassroots organizations, but came as the Omicron variant continued to spread throughout the Golden State, causing case rates to increase from San Diego to San Francisco.

In a news conference Monday, Ghaly cited a 47 percent increase in coronavirus case rates since Thanksgiving as the reason that all Californians must resume face coverings in public indoor locations regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated.

It’s a big change to the state’s masking policy, which was loosened on July 28, allowing those who are fully vaccinated to venture indoors without covering up in most locations, though masks continued to be required in several high-risk settings, such as transit hubs, K-12 schools and health care facilities.

So far, the state has made no move toward limiting access to indoor locations that were shut down in 2020 and that were gradually reopened this year under the state’s much-maligned tier system.

Mandatory masking, Ghaly said, could help control coronavirus spread at a time when many will gather for holiday celebrations.

“This is a critical time where we have a tool that we know has worked and we are proactively putting this tool of universal indoor masking in public settings to ensure we get through a time of joy and hope without a darker cloud of concern and despair,” Ghaly said. “Californians have done this before, and of course we believe we can do it again.”

Some, though, saw other motives.

Amy Reichert, co-leader of ReOpen San Diego, a grassroots group that has protested all government mandates, from shutdowns to vaccination, said Monday that “sit-in” protests are likely in the coming weeks to decry what many believe are ineffective face covering requirements.

“We believe that this is not about health; this is about control,” Reichert said.

Let Them Breathe, another local organization opposed to mask mandates in schools, was quick to release its own statement Monday.

“There is no justification for California to mandate masks indoors again,” the statement said. “The newest symptoms have been reported to be mild, and the rhetoric just isn’t making sense.

“Increasingly, people are asserting their humanity by sharing smiles and navigating via common sense.”

The organization said it expects “many adults to join in peaceful non-compliance in response to this escalating government overreach.”

Many have continued to assert, often at podiums during local government meetings, that masks do not stop coronavirus from spreading.

But research has increasingly found that, if used pretty much universally, cloth face coverings can catch enough respiratory particles to slow the spread, even if they do not constitute a complete barrier to transmission.

A widely cited evidence review from the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s most-respected independent nonprofit sources of vetted medical advice, said in January that it is “in favor of widespread mask use, stating that nonmedical masks have been effective in reducing transmission and that “places and time periods where mask usage is required or widespread have shown substantially lower community transmission.”

That breakdown is visible in California today with some counties, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, continuing to mandate masks indoors while others, such as San Diego, have not.

According to the state’s COVID-19 data-tracking website, the state’s seven-day average case rate is 14 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents. Los Angeles and San Francisco counties posted rates of 13.3 and 8.5, respectively. San Diego’s latest number is listed at 19.8 per 100,000.

Ghaly’s announcements Monday were not limited to face coverings.

The executive said the state will also require anyone attending a “mega event” with more than 1,000 attendees who does not show proof of vaccination to show a negative COVID-19 test taken in the previous 24 hours if it’s a rapid antigen test or two days if it’s a PCR test. The previous requirement was that negative results be dated in the 72 hours previous to the event date.

“Given the breadth and availability of tests, the fact that turnaround times are speedier than they were in the past, this seems appropriate,”Ghaly said.

A third recommendation is for those returning to or visiting California to have a coronavirus test within three to five days of arrival.