Orange County residents are no longer required to wear cloth masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic after health officials walked back a mandate on Thursday, following weeks of pushback from County Supervisors and the abrupt resignation of the local public health officer.

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Former Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick abruptly resigned Monday night following questions about her mask order from Supervisors Michelle Steel and Don Wagner, along with residents. 

She also received numerous threats, with Steel calling one a “death threat” at a news conference last month

Steel and Wagner have repeatedly questioned Quick about the masks at the Board’s Tuesday meetings before her resignation. 

OC Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, is now the acting health officer. 

“It came as a surprise to me when she resigned on Monday,” County CEO Frank Kim said at a Thursday news conference. “Am I concerned, am I disappointed? Sure, we don’t like to see as much transition as we’ve seen in the County Health Care Agency.” 

Although Chau changed the order, he still strongly recommends the masks. 

“I want to be clear this does not diminish the importance of face coverings … wearing a cloth face covering helps to slow the spread of COVID 19 and saves lives,” Chau said at a Thursday news conference. 

Chau, responding to questions from Voice of OC, said the move will create less confusion for residents. 

“We talk about this, the reason is we want to be consistent with the state. So if you look at all the state guidance,” Chau said. “The language around face coverings is ‘should.’ We don’t want to cause any confusion in the public.” 

Steel openly questioned the science behind the masks at Supervisor meetings, and Chau has repeatedly cited various CDC guidelines and other studies. 

“I will always stand by science, even though I work for the Board of Supervisors. But I believe that they hired me to give them the science, that’s all I know … I don’t speak politics,” Chau said Thursday, responding to questions from the press corps. 

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at University of California, Irvine, said the County is moving the wrong way. 

“I think it’s a step backwards. I mean where the rubber meets the road, it was a strong recommendation to begin with because with the way enforcement was being done. But it makes it harder now for individual businesses to require masks within their walls because it softens what the County is doing,” Noymer said. 

“It’s sending the message that masks don’t matter as much,” Noymer said. “I’d like to see everyone in the county masking when they go out in public.”

Supervisor Andrew Do, who got his colleagues to adopt a mask requirement for food and pharmacy workers in April, encouraged people to wear the masks if they can’t stay six feet from others. 

“I would still encourage everyone to maintain social distance when possible,” Do said at Thursday’s news conference. “Where you can’t maintain social distance, you wear a face covering. Especially those who are at risk.” 

Nearly all the major grocery store chains, some department stores, some liquor stores and scores of banks require masks. Some banks, like Bank of America, also have an employee standing outside the front door to limit the number of people coming into the branch so people can maintain the CDC-recommended six-foot physical distance from others. 

Chau said he’s worked with the Health Care Agency’s epidemiologists to revise the order. 

He also said by walking the order back, it gives a tool for him to use if the County sees a spike in cases. If not, Chau said, businesses might have to shut down again. 

“If our numbers ever go out of range, we have to submit a remedial plan to the state. So the option would take drastic measures and or close the businesses down. If we don’t have a way to become more drastic in our measures, then we would be forced to close our business sector,” Chau said.  

Before the order was changed, County Sheriff Don Barnes said he would take a light-handed approach to enforcing the mask order. 

“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.

Chau said the order wasn’t being enforced anyway and if numbers spike and he mandates masks, it would have to be enforced. 

Meanwhile, bars, gyms and hair salons are slated to reopen Friday.

Youth sports leagues have not been approved yet by the state, said Kim, noting that there has been much discussion with county officials pressing state officials, adding that County Supervisor Don Wagner has been pushing hard to open up youth leagues given the other openings. 

Quick and Chau have warned Supervisors that virus cases will increase as more people re-enter public life. 

The virus has now killed 202 people out of nearly 8,000 confirmed cases, according to the County’s updated numbers

Hospitalizations have steadily been increasing, averaging nearly 300 for the past week. On Thursday, 294 people were hospitalized, including 142 in intensive care units. 

Just over 3,700 people have recovered from the virus and roughly 172,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to approximately 3.2 million people. 

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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