Orange County’s enforcement of the new state-mandated coronavirus mask order is unclear, as the virus continues to spread, especially in OC’s two biggest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana. 

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On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out a mandatory mask order for the entire state – fresh on the heels of a tense debate among Orange County supervisors about walking back local mask orders.

County Health Care Agency Director and interim Health Officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, earlier this week said he and other health staff were reviewing the state’s new mask order and didn’t have specifics on what enforcement will look like. 

Chau also stood by the effectiveness of the masks at a Thursday press conference and addressed the anti-mask group that has been showing up at the Supervisors meetings to rail against masks during public comments. 

“To the opponents, I’ve said this, you heard me say it from day one … that is the mask is to protect others, to protect your neighbors. Not necessarily very much about you,” Chau said. “That’s the point I was trying to drive through.” 

Chau cited a series of recent studies that show masks work to help limit the spread. 

“I believe in what science says.” 

Sheriff Don Barnes previously said he wouldn’t enforce the mask order as Orange County had its own order briefly, issued abruptly just before Memorial Day weekend by former Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick late last month as restaurants and shopping malls began reopening. 

“We are not the mask police nor do I intend to be the mask police,” Barnes told Supervisors at the May 26 meeting. 

“So I know there is a ‘shall’ order. Our deputies always have … fallen back on education first to take appropriate measures. But we are not and have not dealt through these issues through enforcement. And I will direct my staff not to direct any enforcement towards the shall issue mask requirement,” Barnes said.

Quick faced a wave of pushback from County Supervisors and residents following her order. She abruptly resigned June 8, following threats from residents and at least one protest in front of her house. 

Chau, a psychiatrist by training who heads up the OC Health Care Agency and was appointed as Acting Public Health Director by supervisors after Quick resigned, quickly walked the order back on June 11 despite his support for the science behind masking. 

Supervisor Michelle Steel, who’s publicly questioned the science behind masks, announced earlier this week that Orange County’s virus numbers are better than neighboring counties. 

“Orange County’s number of COVID-19 have continued to remain lower than our surrounding counties and regions,” Steel said at the Thursday news conference. “Orange County continues to see the lowest rate of confirmed cases and the lowest rate of COVID-19 related deaths compared to our neighboring counties.” 

Steel’s comments have turned out to be off the mark. 

But  recent death and hospitalization rates in Orange County are actually worse than three out of the four neighboring counties.

In recent days, OC consistently has seen higher hospitalization and death rates than San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside counties. Orange County’s rates continue to climb faster than the surrounding counties.

The virus has now killed 257 people — including seven new deaths today — out of 9,576 confirmed cases, according to the OC Health Care Agency’s Friday numbers. 

There were also 336 hospitalized, including 142 in intensive care units. Nearly 4,600 people have recovered and almost 203,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to 3.2 million people. 

OC’s two largest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, continue to be hit hardest by the virus.

Anaheim has 1,839 confirmed cases and Santa Ana has 2,055. 

Taken together, the two cities have 40 percent of all of OC’s cases, but make up roughly 22 percent of the county’s total population. 

“These two cities keep me up at night,” said Chau earlier this week at the press conference in response to Voice of OC questions about Anaheim and Santa Ana. “We have started the conversation with a group of community based organizations, with the city councils, with the school districts,” Chau said. “We just about two weeks ago started the conversation. We’re going to drill down into the number.” 

Chau said he’s formed a task force to look into the rising cases in Anaheim and Santa Ana to help better educate residents on the issue. 

And more resources could be directed at the two cities, which have large working class populations. 

“To go into the community, what we need to do is educate the community on what does it mean when you have tested positive [for] COVID,” Chau said. “And also provide the services that is much needed, housing and social services.”

And he expressed concern that the virus is hitting Latino and Black communities harder than other groups. 

Latinos make up over 34 percent of OC’s population and account for 39 percent of cases and 34 percent of deaths.  

Just over 2 percent of residents are Black, and the community has one percent of the cases and two percent of deaths. 

“The two ethnic communities that are disproportionately affected is the Latinx community and the Black community,” Chau said. “Those are the two communities that keep me up at night.”

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data: 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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