To mask or not to mask? California’s conundrum

A pedestrian passes a mural reading: "When out of your home, Wear a mask over your mouth and nose," in San Francisco on Nov. 21, 2020. Photo by Jeff Chiu, AP Photo

Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing a mask dilemma.

If he updates the state’s mask guidance to align with that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which on Thursday announced that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks or physically distance in most places — he risks contradicting his own stance, which has already changed twice in the past two days. Newsom said Wednesday that California would keep mask “guidelines and mandates” in place for “indoor activities” even after the state fully reopens on June 15. But the day before, he said the mask mandate would be lifted entirely by June 15, except for in “massively large (indoor) settings where people from around the world … are convening.”

His comments in the days leading up to the CDC’s announcement marked a sharp contrast with the state’s silence on Thursday. Neither a spokeswoman for Newsom nor a spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health responded to requests for clarification on the state’s mask policy.

Then, late Thursday night, the state public health department released a statement: “The state is reviewing the new CDC guidance on masking requirements.” The extended review time is a precaution California has taken before: State officials didn’t authorize the Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 12-15 until Wednesday, two days after it was approved by the feds.

Meanwhile, California’s workplace safety agency is set to consider rule changes next week that would permit fully vaccinated workers to forgo masks both outdoors and indoors, as long as everyone else in the room is also fully vaccinated and doesn’t have symptoms. The Golden State currently allows fully vaccinated people to go without masks outdoors, except when attending crowded events like sports games.

Political dilemmas also loom for Newsom. Aligning the state’s mask guidance with the CDC’s would likely bring the divisive issue of vaccine passports to the fore, as people would presumably have to prove they’re fully vaccinated in order to walk maskless into a store. And less mask-wearing could also increase the state’s risk of another coronavirus surge — something the governor undoubtedly wants to avoid with a recall election looming on the horizon.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Thursday, California had 3,659,641 confirmed cases (+0.04% from previous day) and 61,351 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 33,352,542 vaccine doses, and 46.7% of Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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