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Los Angeles braces for return of indoor mask mandate

Business owners say their livelihoods will suffer and don't see a point when hospitals aren't strained and deaths are low.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles County's public health director Barbara Ferrer told reporters this week it is "highly likely" the county will reinstitute its universal mask mandate July 29. That means wear masks or facial coverings will be mandatory in most indoor public places like restaurants, bars and supermarkets.

"Unfortunately, for some people, this is still a virus that can cause a fair amount of devastation," Ferrer said during a press call Thursday. A return to mandatory face covering, she said, "reduces the risk for those most vulnerable.

Covid is surging in much of the world thanks to the omicron BA.5 subvariant, a highly contagious version of the virus that manages to elude many people's immunity, whether from an earlier variant or from vaccinations. But unlike most of the country, LA County has an automatic trigger for various public health interventions. When the county averages more than 10 hospital admissions due to Covid per 100,000 people per day, over a 7-day period, it is considered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to have a "high" community level of Covid.

Should the county remain at that "high" level for two weeks in a row, the mask mandate automatically goes into effect. LA County is currently averaging 11.4 hospital admissions per 100,000 people due to Covid.

"You can see we’re on the cusp between medium and high," said Ferrer, who noted that only 7% of staffed inpatient hospital beds in the county are filled with Covid-positive patients. "We are hoping to see some declines, and not have to move forward with universal indoor masking."

Nearly all counties in California are also at that "high" level. But LA County is the only jurisdiction preparing to bring back mandatory mask wearing. Alameda County reinstated its mask mandate in June, only to rescind it three weeks later saying conditions had "stabilized."

There are signs that the surge in LA County may be hitting a plateau; a number of metrics, including the Covid testing positivity rate, appear to be leveling out, though Ferrer said it was too soon to know if the surge was actually slowing down.

The county is also averaging 18 Covid deaths a day, far fewer than the 70 or so deaths per day at the height of the last surge this past February, and fewer than than the roughly 30 deaths per day at the height of the Delta surge this past September.

Nevertheless, Ferrer said Covid remains dangerous for some people, especially the unvaccinated, but also people over 80 years old who are far more likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid. The disease also disproportionately affects Black and Latino residents.

"When people pass along misinformation that the current Covid surge isn’t hurting anyone, this is who they hurt," said Ferrer.

Many Angelenos see the return of forced masking with a mix of annoyance and resignation. Some are angry — especially business owners.

"I’m disappointed that LA officials are doing this," said Christy Vegas, owner of Casa Vega, a restaurant in Sherman Oaks that's been around since 1956. "I don’t understand their reasoning. If the hospitals aren’t strained, what are we doing?"

Vegas said the mandate will be bad for businesses.

"It tells people, times are dangerous and everyone needs to be scared," she said. " So people will stay home, and it will definitely decrease business."

She also worries about her employees, who are the ones who will have to enforce the health department's mandate. It's a common refrain from business owners.

"The person who is always the one who has to try to enforce it, who gets yelled at, who gets assaulted, is always the lowest paid person in that store or restaurant," said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, a group that represents businesses in the San Fernando Valley. "We put a lot on those employees. Now they have to tell some jerk to put on a mask. It’s not an easy thing."

Ravenna Golden works at Cookbook, a small, charming neighborhood grocery store in Echo Park. She said it's far easier for customers, who only have to put on the mask for a few minutes at a time. Workers have to wear them all day.

"It can feel dehumanizing when you’re in a mask," she said. "People can be rude. They don’t treat you as well when you're in a mask." Bringing back the mandate now, she said, when deaths and hospitalizations are as low as they are, "feels tone deaf."

When asked about the public's resistance to mask wearing, Ferrer sounded annoyed, or at least defiant.

"People are saying putting masks on is asking a lot of folks," Ferrer said. "We've asked a lot more of people. I’m tired of this. Masks have come to symbolize lots of other things. I would urge people to think of their masks as an act of kindness and consideration for others."

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