California Orders New Universal Indoor Mask Mandate, Effective Wednesday, As Infection Rates Rise

California Covid

In a surprise move Monday, California state officials announced that the state is instituting a universal indoor mask mandate, effective Wednesday, December 15. The current mandate will run through January 15, 2022.

“We will require universal masking in indoor settings statewide,” said state director of health and human services Dr. Mark Ghaly, noting that the order will cover the roughly 50% of California’s population not currently under such a mandate.

“We know people are tired and hungry for normalcy. Frankly, I am too,” Ghaly admitted today. “That said, this is a critical time where we have a tool that we know has worked. We are proactively putting this tool of universal indoor masking in public settings in place to ensure we get through a time of joy and hope without a darker cloud of concern and despair.”

The state will also tighten restrictions on unvaccinated people who attend indoor “mega-events” of 1,000 people or more, requiring them to receive a negative Covid test within one day of the event if it’s a rapid antigen test or within two days for a PCR test. Current rules require a test within 72 hours of the event.

The state is also recommending, but not requiring, that people who travel to California or return to the state after traveling be tested for Covid within three to five days.

Current state guidelines — which are followed by many counties including Riverside, Orange and San Diego — say masks are only required indoors at public transit facilities such as airports, healthcare settings, adult and senior care facilities, schools, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers. The new order extends the requirement in those counties to movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, family entertainment centers and government offices that serve the public.

Los Angeles County already has a mask-wearing mandate at indoor public facilities.

The state currently requires mask-wearing for unvaccinated people at indoor public facilities, but the new rule will apply to everyone regardless of vaccine status.

Ghaly noted on a hastily-arranged conference call with reporters that the state had seen a 47% rise in case rates since Thanksgiving, from 9.6 per 100,000 cases to 14 per 100,000. He also reported that local hospitals are seeing patient levels “significantly above their baseline for this time of year.”

He continued: “We know that we’re entering into a pretty hard time, that we’re staring to see some of these numbers come up pretty quickly in some communities…[Masking] is the common sense thing to do.”

Infections are not spread evenly across the state, he said. “There are some counties that are well above our average (in case rates).” That could mean “serious challenges” to those communities, according to Ghaly. Many of those communities are also among the least vaccinated.

He pointed to rising infections in Riverside and San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono Counties and the Central Valley, as well as in the northernmost parts of the state, such as Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino.

Last winter, the state saw about 28,000 deaths related to Covid between November 2020 and February 2021. The HHS director said officials are hoping to avoid a repeat of that tragedy.

“Frankly with Delta and Omicron and the more rapid replication, we are seeing people who — if they do become severely sick — they are becoming sicker sooner. So we don’t have nearly as much room…as we did last year to make adjustments.”

While Delta still dominates, the state has identified 13 instances of the Omicron variant, including some that appear to be via community transmission — as opposed to those people who were infected abroad before traveling here.

The California order was announced on the same day that New York state’s indoor public mask mandate took effect. According to NBC, similar orders have been issued in Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada and Hawaii.

When asked whether the measure was a first step top other increased restrictions Ghaly said, “Absolutely not.

When asked about enforcement of the mandate statewide, California’s top health official acknowledged that some venues will adhere to the order more strictly than others. But, he emphasized, “We are expecting Californians to heed the warnings and mask up.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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