Bay Area health officers announce criteria to ease indoor mask rules

A reflection of a masked passenger boards a Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus outside the City Hall in San Jose, Calif., on Oct. 6, 2021. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Health officials across nine Bay Area jurisdictions announced their criteria Thursday to eventually lift the region’s requirement to wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status.

The health officers in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties and the city of Berkeley initially issued the mandate Aug. 3 amid a wave of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the highly contagious delta variant.

On Thursday, the health officers argued that the wave is now receding, and a plan to transition away from the mandate in the coming weeks is necessary.

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Each county as well as Berkeley will lift the mandate respectively when it has reached the moderate or yellow tier of COVID-19 transmission as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least three weeks; when its COVID-19 hospitalizations are “low and stable,” as determined by local health officials; and when 80 percent of each jurisdiction’s total population is fully vaccinated or eight weeks have passed since federal authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

As of Thursday, none of the eight counties are in the moderate transmission tier.

In addition, none have reached 80 percent vaccination among their full populations, although Marin, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have crested 70 percent.

“Masks and vaccines together have protected residents of Alameda County and the Bay Area during the summer wave” said Dr. Nicholas Moss, Alameda County Health Officer. “While we expect COVID-19 and flu to circulate this winter, with more people well-protected from severe illness by vaccination we will be able to loosen mask requirements safely.”

“These regional metrics will help keep our community safe, and ensure that our case rates are low and stable, our hospitals are in good shape and vaccination rates are robust,” Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Thursday that the city will forge ahead next week in easing its indoor mask requirements for some settings while also easing its masking order more broadly under the criteria the health officials jointly announced.

Beginning Oct. 15, San Francisco will allow those in indoor settings with fewer than 100 people like offices, gyms and indoor college classes to forgo a face covering if everyone can verify that they are fully vaccinated.

“San Francisco’s health orders and shared mitigation efforts have been successful in keeping us safer as a community, and a relaxation of masking orders is warranted,” San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax said. We’ll continue to follow the data and science where it leads us.”

Health officers in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties both noted that their COVID-19 hospitalizations have receded enough to be considered “low and stable,” but said their respective transmission and vaccination rates will likely keep mask requirements in place through most of the year, if not into early 2022.

California’s masking guidelines in K-12 schools would also not be affected by changes to local health orders, Alameda County health officials advised.

Federal health regulators are also not expected to consider emergency use authorization data for children ages 5-11 until the end of October, at the earliest.

“We are seeing 900-to-1,000 new first-dose vaccinations in our county every single day,” Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said Thursday.

“So if we continue at that pace, we could reach that 80 percent mark within two or three months,” he said. “And then if we have a significant number of children also get vaccinated once they are authorized, that could speed up that timeline as well.”

Farnitano also acknowledged that Contra Costa County officials have had internal discussions about an indoor mask policy similar to San Francisco’s, but plan to keep the county’s current mask requirements intact for now.

Cody said Santa Clara County has no plans to follow San Francisco’s lead for relatively small indoor gatherings, noting that the county has not even mandated proof of vaccination for certain activities like indoor dining.

“We have always sought to have rules that are as simple as possible, as easy as possible for the public to understand,” Cody said. “So here in Santa Clara County as well as most jurisdictions in the Bay Area, we will keep our requirement for indoor masking, regardless of vaccination status, until we meet these metrics that we’ve adopted across the Bay Area.”

In additional to continuing for K-12 schools, indoor masking requirements that will remain in place under state and federal guidance even after the regional masking orders are fully lifted also include health care settings and while using public transit.

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