Orange County residents who are vaccinated can take off their masks in some indoor settings when the two-month statewide, universal indoor mask mandate ends tomorrow.
But how well OC dealt with the mask mandate is unclear with county public health officials largely taking a hands off approach to enforcement.
“The fact of the matter is that on the ground, people are not always following these mandates and I think stores and whatnot are increasingly loath to enforce them,” UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said in a Thursday phone interview.
“Enforcement is really the crux of it all.”
Noymer said the request “can you please put your mask on?” has been declining throughout OC. He also said it’s questionable how well any potential future mask mandates could work.
“If there’s a rule on the books that becomes a total joke, then I think it risks infecting all future public health rules,” he said. “The optics look like the state is following, not leading.”
It’s an issue that’s been seen at Orange County Board of Supervisors meetings throughout the pandemic.
While supervisors wear masks during their meetings on the dais, waves of residents who speak during public comment in a separate room are unmasked while county officials don’t push residents to wear them while they’re indoors.
That stands in stark contrast to cities like Anaheim, where officials made sure residents wore masks inside the city council meeting chambers.
At an early February council meeting, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu paused a resident’s public comment period to ask him to put his mask on.
Noymer emphasized even with masks dropping, people can and should wear masks.
“I do still believe that people should be masking, but I think at the moment it is going to have to be on a voluntary basis because even with the so-called rules, there’s not going to be total compliance nor very much enforcement,” he said.
In a news briefing last week, deputy OC Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said there’s waves of reports to the county Health Care Agency that some OC residents and businesses have flat out ignored the mandate.
Chinsio-Kwong said when people ignore the mandates, medically vulnerable residents end up sick or in the hospital.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know that people really see that direct correlation,” she said.
In a follow up email on Friday, Chinsio-Kwong said the Health Care Agency has received and responded to health order violation complaints on a daily basis since the start of the pandemic.
“That has not changed with any of the mask mandates. We have received 19 complaints from chatbot responses on the Public Health Services (PHS) website since January 18th,” she wrote.
But county officials – including public health officials – have repeatedly said they don’t have the power to enforce masks.
Chinsio-Kwong said the health care agency’s environmental health division has not issued any citations and that enforcement of local and state health orders was really up to law enforcement and state agencies.
“[Environmental Health] does not have enforcement authority,” she wrote.
Nonetheless, the mask mandate – that for some never was – is ending following a vicious winter surge in OC that saw case rates skyrocket before eventually dropping and after the county hit a grave milestone of over 6,000 deaths from COVID.
The new changes are expected to go into effect on Feb. 16 according to the state’s public health department.
As of Sunday, 6,308 people have been killed by the virus, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
Even with the mandate coming to an end, masking indoors will still be a requirement for people who are unvaccinated and for everyone, including vaccinated individuals, in certain settings like public transportation as well as airports, train and bus stations.
They will also be required to be worn at homeless shelters, prisons, senior care facilities, health care settings and schools, Chinsio-Kwong said during last week’s press conference.
“While fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to mask indoors, we still recommend that you continue to wear a mask indoors, regardless of your vaccination status, especially those who are at high risk or living with loved ones who have comorbidities or who are immunocompromised or prone to getting sick,” she said.
She also said case rates are still high and so is transmission of the virus in OC.
“Do I expect cases to continue to decline or to rise with the lifting of the mask mandate? That’s a good question. I think there is a potential for the cases to rise,” Chinsio-Kwong said, noting a new subvariant of Omicron in Europe.
Who Enforced the Mandate in OC?
The responsibility of enforcing the mandate was up to businesses and the community, Chinsio-Kwong said.
“Law enforcement is there to help with enforcement, but again, it’s a very complex situation,” she said at last Wednesday’s news briefing. “At this point, we are here to provide recommendations and really safeguard our community and it’s still a community responsibility to maintain a mandate.”
She also said it’s going to be difficult to enforce an indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated people with the new change.
Some local governments and school districts have been enforcing the mask mandate at indoor public meetings like the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District.
Last month, the school board’s president Carrie Buck unilaterally adjourned their January meeting twice within minutes after people at the meeting refused to comply with mask mandates.
The board even ended up contemplating moving their February meeting to this upcoming Wednesday – after the California mask mandate is expected to retire.
Instead, they held their meeting last week outdoors.
Los Alamitos Unified School District trustees have also enforced the state mask mandate at their meeting and ended up meeting in an alternate room in January when people at their meeting refused to comply with the requirement.
Mask Mandate at Schools Continue Amid Pushback
While the indoor mask mandate is coming to an end, students and school staff will still be required to wear their masks inside classrooms – at least for now.
At a Monday news conference, Secretary of the state Health and Human Services department, Dr. Mark Ghaly said they won’t change the mask mandate at schools just yet but they will reassess data at the end of the month on whether to lift the requirement.
A coalition of Orange County superintendents last Friday, have called on Newsom to “announce a criteria for easing school masking requirements,” according to the Orange County Department of Education.
Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer, said that it’s important that masks are worn at schools, noting that kids 5-11 years old are the least vaccinated group eligible for a shot.
“As of January 31, for ages five to 11, only 33% of that population received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine,” she said during last Wednesday’s news briefing.
The mask mandates at schools have been fiery points of contention since they first went into effect during the pandemic.
County parents have also been rallying at school board meetings against masks and people have been holding protests against mask requirements,
Some parents in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District have even threatened to sue teachers over mask enforcement.
While Buck enforced the mask mandate at their meetings, Placentia-Yorba Linda school board members Leandra Blades and Shawn Youngblood, have criticized the mask enforcement in their own district classrooms as inconsistent.
An attempt earlier this month by Blades to get the board to approve a resolution against removing kids from classrooms failed. Some parents have even threatened to sue teachers over mask enforcement.
Several trustees in school districts across Orange County like Placentia-Yorba Linda have passed resolutions calling on the state to rethink school mask mandates.
They are not the only ones who have rallied against the state’s school mask mandate.
The Orange County Board of Education has also tried to sue the state over the school mask mandate, but their petition was denied by the California Supreme Court around a week after it was filed.
And Newport Beach City Council members passed a resolution in support of children going maskless at schools last year.
Officials in a couple of states including Oregon have announced plans to get rid of their own school mask mandates.
Mask Mandates in OC
Back in December, state public health officials announced a one month reinstatement of an indoor mask requirement amid concerns over an Omicron winter surge.
The mandate was expected to end on Jan. 15 but when case counts skyrocketed, state officials extended the mandate to Feb. 15.
Mandates like this have left many residents in OC angry even at the start of the pandemic.
“The messaging around masks was one of the original sins of the pandemic, like we didn’t do a good job of explaining their benefits and it’s just been muddled ever since,” Noymer said.
The first mask mandate in OC went into effect in 2020 issued by former county health officer Nichole Quick which faced immediate backlash, with people protesting outside her house and Quick even receiving a death threat.
Quick ended up resigning in June 2020 and county Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau walked back the mandate.
That same month, Newsom issued his own mask mandate.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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