As a sign of improving COVID-19 conditions, San Francisco will lift mask requirements in indoor gyms and offices next week – but only if everyone is vaccinated indoors.
The move would make San Francisco the first part of the Bay Area, significantly easing the face covering requirements for indoor public spaces imposed in midsummer in response to the recent delta surge. If recent trends continue, it won’t be the last.
As long as the number of newly confirmed infections and the number of patients being admitted to hospitals remains stable and low, San Francisco will lift the mask requirement for indoor use on October 15, not only in offices and gyms, but also in the interiors of colleges, places of worship , Commuter vehicles and other gatherings of people who meet regularly but do not exceed 100 people. Everyone in these places must be vaccinated.
Employers or hosts must ensure that the rooms are properly ventilated, that children under the age of 12 and guests are absent, and that there have been no recent COVID-19 outbreaks.
Berkeley and San Francisco are the only two Bay Area jurisdictions that require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from customers 12 and older in indoor restaurants, bars, and gyms. Contra Costa County, the Bay Area’s third largest county, has ordered these customers to provide either proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test result.
The Mayor of San Francisco London Breed – who was criticized last month for throwing off her mask at an indoor jazz nightclub despite ordering a mask – described the move as “an important step forward,” especially for downtown.
“When I speak to office workers and business leaders, I keep hearing that they are eager to return to a more normal workday where they can interact with their colleagues,” she said in a statement. “Our economy is recovering, the city feels like it is coming back to life, and this is another milestone in our recovery.”
The indoor mask requirement remains in effect in environments that are more generally accessible, including shops, malls, and restaurants and bars, except when drinking and dining.
The San Francisco announcement comes on the same day that most of the Bay Area counties unveiled the criteria they believe must be met to largely remove the mask requirement in indoor public spaces. However, it could take months for the counties to meet these self-set benchmarks.
These jurisdictions – San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Sonoma Counties – say they will withdraw the local indoor mask mandate if they achieve all of the following:
- You have been in “moderate” or amber transmission level from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least three weeks;
- The local health officer notes that COVID-19 hospital admissions are sufficiently stable and low;
- At least 80% of the general population are fully vaccinated or eight weeks have passed since the vaccinations were approved for use in children between the ages of 5 and 11.
No county in the Bay Area has met all of these thresholds. In fact, as of Thursday, all counties reporting data to the CDC in California were in one of the CDC agency’s worst two tiers in rating coronavirus transmission rates: “significant” or orange and “high” or red.
A map showing coronavirus transmission rates across all of California’s counties.
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
San Francisco estimates that 75% of residents of all ages are fully vaccinated; Santa Clara County, the most populous in the Bay Area, reports that 72% of all residents are fully vaccinated. In Contra Costa County, 71% of all residents are fully vaccinated.
Contra Costa County may not meet all three indoor mask removal thresholds until later this year or early next year, officials said in a statement.
Bay Area counties can choose to lift mask requirements at different times, said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s director and public health officer, at a briefing. This could lead to a scenario where one county may still need masks while its neighbors don’t.
“The most important thing is that we have relatively simple metrics that the public can see and that we can track them together,” said Cody.
Health officials have long said that containing the coronavirus requires a multi-pronged approach. Measures like wearing masks in public, maintaining physical distancing and vaccination can reduce a person’s risk of infection – but they’re more effective when used together.
“Basically, we want to make sure we have many levels of prevention. We want to make sure the inoculation layer is really tough before we peel off the masking layer, ”said Cody.
Currently, children under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated. Pfizer has applied for federal approval to use its COVID-19 vaccinations in children ages 5-11, but it may take until Thanksgiving for these vaccinations to be approved.
Much of the Bay Area has moved together regularly during the pandemic – restrictions have been added and lifted to present a unified front against the coronavirus.
Masks were no exception. Health officials from most of the Bay Area counties jointly announced their existing mandates in early August, when the Delta variant was still storming the region. (Solano County never again implemented a mask mandate, and a county next to the Bay Area, Santa Cruz, issued a mask mandate weeks later than the rest of the Bay Area and canceled its mask order last week.)
While other counties across the state passed similar rules, California as a whole never reintroduced a universal indoor mask mandate during the last wave. While state health authorities require unvaccinated residents to wear masks indoors in public places, they only recommend vaccinated individuals do the same.
Bay Area officials said the pathway revealed Thursday will bring clarity to the public and allow residents to easily see how close their county or city is to clearing all hurdles.
“Masks and vaccines combined have protected the residents of Alameda County and the Bay Area during the summer wave,” said Dr. Nicholas Moss, the Alameda County health officer, in a statement. “While we expect COVID-19 and flu to circulate this winter as more people are well protected from serious illnesses with vaccinations, we will be able to safely relax the mask requirement.”
The relaxation of the local mask requirement for interiors has no impact on the mask requirements imposed by the state or federal governments. For example, the state has mandated the use of inner masks in K-12 school settings, and the federal government has mandated the use of inner masks on public transportation such as planes, trains and buses, and at airports.
When asked about the Bay Area announcement, Los Angeles County’s director of public health, Barbara Ferrer, said, “We’re obviously trying to do something similar.”
“I don’t know if it will mimic what is happening in the Bay Area communities. For example, they already have much higher vaccination rates than we do, ”she told reporters on Thursday. “And their community demographics are obviously different.”
Ferrer said 60% of LA County’s residents of all ages are fully vaccinated. According to the CDC, LA County is more vulnerable to natural disasters such as pandemics compared to the Bay Area due to a number of factors including poverty and overcrowded housing.
Los Angeles County was the first California county to reintroduce an indoor mask requirement. The move, ordered in mid-July, has been credited by experts for mitigating the effects of the delta surge.
Ferrer said LA County’s approach to mask relaxation is likely to be “risky in certain attitudes. So, like I said, when you have a lot of unvaccinated students like we do in our elementary schools, that masking requirement is really the most important protection. So I don’t look away at a school until we have more people who can be vaccinated. “
“We have been very honest from the start that one of the driving forces here will be the return to lower transmission rates in the community,” said Ferrer.
Other districts in Southern California that have issued interior mask mandates in response to the summer delta surge include Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial.