Los Angeles County on Friday will end its local health order requiring masking while aboard public transit or inside transportation hubs, such as airports.
For months, L.A. has been the only California county to still mandate widespread masking in such settings — though some individual operators, most notably the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter rail system, also have such rules in place.
L.A. County health officials had previously cited the heightened risks of coronavirus spread and exposure for transit workers as rationale for keeping the order in place. But with the numbers of reported coronavirus cases and hospitalizations having declined notably in recent weeks, health officials said the time has come to relax the order.
Even with the mandate set to expire, though, officials said they still strongly recommend masking in interior transit settings — and “strongly recommend, from our perspective, means it’s a great idea to keep your mask on,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.
BART’s board of directors will also discuss the future of that agency’s mask rules Thursday evening. The mandate there is currently in effect through Oct. 1.
The change coincides with the timing of the California Department of Public Health’s plan to lift state-ordered mandatory masking in jails and prisons, homeless shelters, and emergency and cooling centers in counties with a low COVID-19 community level, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Placement in that category — which includes most California counties — indicates the pandemic is not having a major impact on hospitals. The CDC updates its community level assessments, which indicates rates of new coronavirus-positive hospitalizations, every week, sorting counties into low, medium or high.
State masking orders would still apply in jails and prisons, shelters and cooling centers if there’s an outbreak, or if the facility is in a county with a medium or high COVID-19 community level.
Masks will still be required in healthcare facilities and long-term and senior care settings under a state health order. And the state is requiring that businesses and venues, including K-12 schools, “must allow any individual to wear a mask if they desire.”
L.A. County said that on Friday, it also will ease its strong recommendation for universal masking in indoor settings, and instead say the practice should be a matter of personal preference in light of declining coronavirus case rates. The state is doing the same in counties where hospitalization levels are low.
L.A. County health officials would still strongly recommend certain individuals — including older or unvaccinated residents, as well as those with underlying health conditions or who live in high-poverty areas — mask up in higher-risk settings. Such spaces include those that are crowded, involve close contact with others or have poor air flow.
Ferrer also urged people to wear masks on public transit and in hubs such as airports.
The L.A. County Department of Public Health had previously said it would ease its guidance whenever the county dipped below the threshold of 100 coronavirus cases a week for every 100,000 residents.
L.A. County has now hit that mark. For the seven-day period that ended Thursday, L.A. County reported 98 coronavirus cases a week for every 100,000 residents.
Ferrer said transit masking could be reinstated if the case rate were to again surpass 100 and remain above that threshold for 14 straight days.
“You cannot just ignore the higher risk associated with public transit, especially for transit workers,” she said. “If case rates rise to indicate high transmission, layering in more protection to prevent spread is appropriate.”
Some L.A. County mask orders will remain in place beyond Friday, including the requirement that anyone exposed to the coronavirus wear a mask for 10 days following an exposure. Being exposed 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 L.A. County also are required to stay home for at least five days after their first symptoms or the date of their first positive test if they don’t have symptoms. They can exit isolation as early as the sixth day if they test negative on a rapid test, and generally can end isolation at the start of the 11th day without needing a negative test result.
L.A. 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 employees at a worksite. The California Department of Public Health has similar guidelines for exposed and infected people, but unlike L.A. County and Cal/OSHA, it makes them recommendations, not requirements.
California also is largely rescinding its strong recommendation that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — mask up when in indoor public settings and businesses. Instead, California will recommend universal indoor masking only when a county’s COVID-19 community level is high.
The changes will give “Californians the information they should consider when deciding when to wear a mask, including the rate of spread in the community and personal risk,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, California’s public health director and state health officer, said in a statement.
California health officials say that mask use remains important for protection against infection. In 2021, consistently wearing a face mask in indoor public settings reduced the risk of getting a coronavirus infection, the state Department of Public Health said, citing a study it published. And a 10% increase in self-reported mask wearing tripled the likelihood of slowing community transmission of the coronavirus, officials said, citing a series of surveys nationwide.