June 13, 2021

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California likely to end most mask mandates after June 15 reopening, Newsom says – San Francisco Chronicle

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California is likely to end its mask requirements in most settings next month as part of a lifting of coronavirus pandemic restrictions, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

The state will require masks after its envisioned June 15 reopening “only in those settings that are indoor, only in those massively large settings where people from around the world, not just around the country, are convening and where people are mixing in real dense spaces,” Newsom said Tuesday in an interview with KTTV-TV in Los Angeles.

“Otherwise, we’ll make guidance recommendations, but … no mandates and no restrictions on businesses large and small,” Newsom said.

California now requires masks in most indoor settings outside the home and on public transit, both for unvaccinated and vaccinated people. Unvaccinated people should also wear masks outdoors when they can’t maintain physical distancing, the state says.

Newsom’s reference to continued mask requirements in “massively large settings” indoors is similar to the state’s current outdoor mask rules for vaccinated people. Those say people should wear masks at “crowded outdoor events, such as live performances, parades, fairs, festivals, sports events, or other similar settings.”

Some public health experts expressed concern that the decision to lift the mandate may be too hasty, especially with global COVID-19 case counts still on the rise.

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“I don’t think we’re quite ready,” said Shannon Bennett, chief of science at the California Academy of Sciences. “We’re not all vaccinated. We are still dealing with new variants in the U.S. that are increasing in proportion. I worry that we’re getting overly excited about reopening.”

California says it will end most pandemic restrictions on June 15 if coronavirus hospitalizations are “stable and low” and if vaccines continue to be widely available. County health departments would be free to impose more stringent rules, though they have followed the state’s lead in most cases.

“I think it’s good to have a line in the sand to know when we finish,” said George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at UCSF. “This is about the statewide mandate. Counties and cities can always do something more stringent. It lets the local health departments add additional restrictions as needed.”

But Dr. Karen Relucio, the Napa County health officer, said she had understood that state mask mandates would stay in place indefinitely and was surprised to hear the governor say they might be lifted around the June 15 reopening. She said that if capacity limits are removed with the reopening — which means people often won’t be able to maintain physical distance — masking would continue to be important.

“There’s no longer going to be limitations on capacity for any business or venue. So that pretty much does away with physical distancing. Until yesterday, I had the assumption that there would still be masking within indoor spaces, in higher-risk settings,” Relucio said. “But then the governor made an announcement that masks would not be mandated. So that decreases the amount of tools at our disposal to prevent transmission.”

Relucio said it was too soon to say whether she might keep a mandate in place for Napa County, but she didn’t relish taking on that decision-making burden.

“It’s safe to say that a lot of local health officers are kind of done doing these public health orders,” Relucio said. “We’ve all taken a lot of heat, and some health officers have taken abuse and threats.”

Fourteen states, mostly with Republican governors, have already abandoned face covering requirements as well as other coronavirus protocols. Eleven states never issued mask mandates.

Bennett said she worried that Newsom’s decision may be driven by politics rather than science.

“I feel like this is a political move in the whole recall mess,” she said. “June 15 is a great target date. But then I would say, let’s ease up on indoor restrictions but keep masks in place. Masks are really our greatest defense until the vaccination rates are much, much higher.”

In California, 36% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and another 16.5% of residents have received at least one shot, according to Chronicle tracking data. The state’s positivity rate — the number of people tested for the coronavirus who have it — stands at 1%.

“We would think that masking is going to be a mainstay of prevention, along with vaccinations and testing among the vaccinated,” Relucio said. “The only way that you can ensure business and schools are opening at full capacity is to eliminate social distancing, and if that’s the case, then what do you have left if you don’t have masks? I would think that would have been the last thing to go.”

San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Trapper Byrne and Ricardo Cano contributed to this report.

Aidin Vaziri and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: avaziri@sfchronicle.com eallday@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MusicSF @erinallday

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