San Francisco eases mask rule, official says LA not ready

COVID-19 case numbers are on the decrease in Los Angeles County but a top health official said Thursday it’s too soon to consider relaxing mask and vaccination requirements in LA, as San Francisco plans to do next week.

Los Angeles County reported just over 26,000 new coronavirus cases, down over the past two weeks from about 46,000, the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic. Hospitalizations and deaths from the fast-spreading omicron variant were also trending downward, said county health director Barbara Ferrer.

"We’ve likely passed the peak of omicron transmission in LA County," Ferrer said during a media briefing. The testing-positivity rate has fallen from about 21% two weeks ago to roughly 13% this week.

Despite the positive trends, Ferrer said transmission remains too widespread in California’s most populous county to start rolling back rules requiring patrons at many businesses to present proof of vaccination and wear masks indoors.

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San Francisco health officials said Thursday that the city’s rapidly dropping case rates will allow the lifting of certain indoor mask mandates starting Feb. 1. Offices, gyms, college classrooms, religious gatherings and other so-called "stable cohorts" where everyone is vaccinated will no longer require people to wear masks — dialing back the city’s rules to where they were in December before omicron transmission took off.

This time, however, everyone in those settings must also have received a vaccine booster, if eligible, in order to go without a mask. Prior to the winter’s omicron surge, people had to be fully vaccinated, but not boosted.

People who don’t meet the vaccination requirements can join their groups "with the added safety of showing a negative test and wearing a mask," the San Francisco Department of Public Health said in a statement.

San Francisco’s decision was cheered by Sharon McKeeman, founder of Let Them Breathe, a California group opposing mask mandates. She said she hoped the restrictions would soon be eased for other businesses as well as public schools.

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"Mandates should have already been lifted a long time ago," McKeeman said in a statement. "It’s time to get back to living for the good of our children and our social, mental and physical health instead of playing political theater with these mandates."

California’s statewide indoor masking mandate is due to expire Feb. 15.

Ferrer said while Los Angeles County was nearing the threshold of 80% vaccination for residents 12 and older, the county still has a way to go to meet criteria for hospitalizations and overall transmission. Keeping mask and vaccine requirements in place is the best way to meet those goals, she said.

"I’m hopeful what with the numbers that we’ve got today, and the trends that we’re seeing, the numbers will continue to decline. I think we all have to do our part still to get those numbers down to a low transmission rate," Ferrer said.

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Enforcement of the city of LA’s vaccine mandate began Nov. 29, but since then officials have not cited any businesses for violating those rules, despite getting hundreds of complaints about sites flouting the requirements, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

The Department of Building and Safety, which was put in charge of citations, told the Times it is instead focusing on outreach and education until the end of January. As of mid-January, it had gotten more than 200 complaints about businesses violating the rules, triggering visits to 187 sites.

City records show that while LA has gotten complaints about violations at a range of businesses, more than half of the complaints involved restaurants, including fast food joints, pizzerias and other establishments, a Times analysis of their addresses found. Other businesses that drew complaints included gyms, beauty salons and bars.

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