Tuesday’s statewide reopening marks an end to most pandemic restrictions in Orange County — masks, physical distancing and business occupancy limits — while concerns linger about a potential fall wave, a new variant that could spread easier and persisting vaccine gaps.
“Fully vaccinated people can resume everyday activities without wearing a mask, except for in limited settings,” said Secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, in a Thursday news briefing.
“Individuals who are not fully vaccinated must continue to wear masks in indoor public settings,” he said.
State public health officials are also requiring masks for students in kindergarten through high school.
“Note this may change based on our ongoing conversation with the CDC as they continue to update their own masks and school guidance in the weeks to come,” Ghaly said.
Masks will also be required — regardless of vaccination status — in hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters.
Everyone will also be required to wear masks in public transportation — airports, bus depots and train stations.
As the state reopens and most pandemic restrictions like masks and physical distancing fall by the wayside, a little over half of OC residents have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the county Health Care Agency.
Statewide, a little more than half of Californians have been vaccinated, according to state data.
But state public health officials don’t know when herd immunity will be hit, which is at least 70% of residents vaccinated.
“I don’t think we have a clear timeline on when we’ll hit any of the ongoing vaccine metrics,” Ghaly said.
Some public health experts are concerned that a new variant found in India — known as the Delta variant — could drive up virus numbers if not enough people are vaccinated.
“We’ve identified the Delta variant in California already in Los Angeles and San Diego,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin in a Thursday phone interview. “This variant can kind of take root and transmit in vulnerable communities.”
He said herd immunity is a moving target because of more transmittable mutations like the Delta variant, which means the threshold could be higher than 70%.
Shin also said he fears the variant could tear through low-income, often minority neighborhoods like the past two waves did.
“I think this is especially important because the patterns we’re seeing now are really troublesome to me as a public health professional. The COVID 19 pandemic has disporopraitely affected communities of color,” Shin said of the vaccine disparities.
About 17% of the 3.4 million doses administered in Orange County have gone to the Latino community, who make up roughly 35% of county residents, according to county data.
Latinos have had 47% of cases and 38% of deaths.
In comparison, white people have received nearly 38% of the shots administered and make up 38% of county residents. They’ve had nearly a quarter of virus cases in the county and 37% of deaths.
Similar trends are playing out statewide.
“The inequities in vaccine rollout have already exacerbated inequalities on who gets COVID and which communities suffer the most,” Shin said. “I feel that stronger measures should be in place to protect these communities.”
The reopening also revived the mask debate following confusing workplace guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Standards (CalOSHA) board over the past two weeks.
At first, board members voted to update the jobsite guidelines, calling for vaccinated people to drop their masks at work unless they’re working indoors with unvaccinated colleagues.
But the CalOSHA board members changed their mind following pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Health Officer Dr. Tomàs Aragòn and numerous business groups to revise the workplace rules to mirror the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines.
The department’s guidelines largely do away with masks for vaccinated people — indoors and outdoors — unless they’re in a medical setting or public transportation setting.
CalOSHA board members are expected to vote on revised guidelines Thursday.
The debate has pitted some business advocacy groups against labor unions during the CalOSHA board meeting public comment periods.
Some unions want the masks to stay, while some business groups say mandated masks undermine the reopening and confidence in the vaccine.
Locally, businesses are confused about what exactly the regulatory board will want them to do.
Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, said local businesses are trying to navigate the workplace guidelines while aiming to protect their workers and customers as the state reopens.
“They don’t want to lose their licenses. The last thing you want is a Yelp review saying I got COVID from buying a hamburger,” Dunn said in a phone interview last Tuesday.
She also said consumer behavior could help shape what a post-reopening business environment looks like.
“They’ll vote with their dollars. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t show up,” Dunn said.
Some local labor unions are pushing to keep pandemic workplace protocols until more people are vaccinated.
“Our members are fighting hard to have conditions that are actually safe,” said Austin Lynch, an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 11.
The union represents scores of service industry workers in the Disneyland area resort districts, like hotel employees and food workers.
“People ought to, for now, wear a mask. Employees ought to wear a mask and guests. We’re far from herd immunity. Nobody knows who’s vaccinated and who’s not. There’s some people who are resistant or fearful of getting vaccinated among the workers and the guests,” Lynch said.
While government officials aren’t mandating people prove their vaccination status to businesses in most cases, Dunn and Lynch said Orange County Supervisors should’ve allowed county public health officials to develop digital vaccination records to curb fraudulent CDC vaccination cards.
Hundreds of people showed up and railed against the digital vaccine proof proposal at the OC Supervisors meeting last month — many said they were concerned about privacy.
Supervisors ultimately shot down the digital vaccine record proposal.
“They punted it because they had 600 people show up from all over the state that were in that one meeting,” Dunn said. “Instead of listening to their business community, they decided toe listen to the anti vax community.”
Lynch said the digital records are a “no brainer” so businesses can easily check to see if their workers are vaccinated and customers, if they require it.
State public health guidelines call for proof of vaccinations or a negative COVID test for indoor events over 5,000 people.
That means people will have to show they’re vaccinated or recently tested negative before going to large conventions at the Anaheim Convention Center and games and concerts at the Honda Center.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio