San Francisco To Lift Some Mask Rules Oct. 15; Other Bay Area Mask Mandates Likely To Remain For Months
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, by Erin Allday
San Francisco will loosen its mask mandate for certain indoor spaces on Oct. 15, but in the city and much of the rest of the Bay Area, people will still be required to wear face coverings in most public places for the next couple of months and possibly into 2022, according to new rules announced Thursday.
In the eight Bay Area counties with indoor mask mandates, health officers will lift the local orders once they reach low COVID case and hospitalization rates and at least 80% of the total population is fully vaccinated. In lieu of the 80% goal, they can lift the mandates eight weeks after children ages 5 to 11 are eligible for vaccination; based on when federal authorization is expected, the earliest counties could meet that metric would be late December.
None of the counties are currently hitting the benchmarks. Most of them won’t meet the vaccination goal for at least two months, and some health officers said Thursday they expect to keep mandates in place through the holidays, if not longer.
San Francisco, which requires people be vaccinated to enter certain spaces, stood apart from its neighbors in allowing people to drop their masks in some of those locations starting Oct. 15, assuming local cases and hospitalizations remain stable or decline over the next week. The order applies to gyms, offices, college classrooms and other places that host gatherings with 100 people or fewer, as long as everyone is vaccinated and no children under 12 are present.
Restaurants and bars are not included in San Francisco’s Oct. 15 timeline, even though vaccination is required at those venues for people 12 and up. The reason, city officials said, is that different people enter those venues every day, so there is more population mixing, which is riskier.
The criteria for dropping mandates apply to Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties, which all reinstated indoor masking in August amid the delta surge. Solano County did not put in place a local mandate.
The state mandate that requires masking in schools and health care settings remains in place indefinitely. Unvaccinated people must continue to wear masks in virtually all public indoor settings, in accordance with state rules.
“We’re not finished with the summer surge. We have made enough progress that we now have a plan — we can tell you when we’ll be able to take off our masks when we go out. But we are not there yet,” said Diane Burgis, chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, in a news briefing Thursday.
Bay Area health officials have come under increasing pressure to ease local mask mandates in recent weeks, as cases began to decline. Statewide, mandates had been lifted on June 15 when California reopened its economy. Eight of the nine Bay Area counties reinstated local mandates in early August.
It now appears that masks won’t go away for a while yet. But several public health experts — even some who have said that mask mandates should be relaxed in the Bay Area — applauded efforts to make the guidelines for removing them more transparent. Many people who had been pushing back on mandates recently said they were frustrated in part because no one would tell them how long they’ll have to wear masks.
“There’s no doubt that this will extend masking in the Bay Area beyond any other region in the country,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a UCSF infectious disease expert. “At least you can look ahead and see normalcy, even if it’s three months from now. This is not how I would do it, but I think it’s great that there are metrics, and now everyone can settle in and wait.”
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, another UCSF infectious disease expert, joked that at least now people can plan to buy holiday-themed face coverings if they want to feel festive.
“When you present some benchmarks, people feel better,” he said. “You set bars and people feel like they can reach them.”
The three criteria for lifting mandates are: Counties must reach moderate levels of transmission as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; they must have low hospitalization rates as defined by the local health officer; and they must vaccinate at least 80% of the total population, or wait eight weeks after children ages 5-11 are eligible for vaccination. Eligibility won’t come until the end of this month at the earliest; Pfizer on Thursday asked federal authorities for emergency authorization of its vaccine for that age group, and the review process could take weeks.
All of the counties currently have “substantial” or “high” levels of local transmission as defined by the CDC.
But case rates have dropped from about 35 cases per 100,000 residents a day in the Bay Area at the end of August to 10 cases per 100,000 residents this week. That rate is still three or four times higher than what the Bay Area was reporting in June, before the surge. COVID hospitalizations have also fallen off, from over 1,100 at the end of August to fewer than 500 this week.
Though the Bay Area has had better vaccine uptake than almost anywhere else in the country, only Marin County has hit the 80% goal; a few others are at or over 75%. In most counties, it will be next to impossible to reach the 80% goal without vaccinating young children.
“We’re hopeful at the very latest it would be right after the holidays — early part of January” that San Francisco would reach the vaccination goal and more widely lift its mask mandate, said Dr. Susan Philip, the city’s health officer. “We’re not going to be as protected as we can be in the city until we have kids vaccinated.”
Dr. Chris Farnitano, the Contra Costa County health officer, said that at the current pace it would take another two to three months to reach 80% of the total population vaccinated. It’s likely, therefore, that the county won’t remove its mask mandate until young children become eligible.
He said the county is reviewing San Francisco’s orders that require proof of vaccination for certain businesses and whether Contra Costa County might establish a similar rule that would in turn allow it to loosen the local mask mandate. “But no decision has been made at this time,” he said.
Several San Francisco business owners who will be able to do away with masks next week cheered the loosening of the local mandate.
Dave Karraker, co-owner of MX3 Fitness and spokesman for the SF Fitness Studio Coalition, which represent nearly 100 neighborhood gyms, called San Francisco’s relaxed mandate “unbelievably good news for the fitness industry.”
The mask mandate for the gyms has kept customers away due to comfort — “nobody likes doing cardio with a mask on,” he said — and also given people the impression that gyms were as risky as crowded nightclubs.
To that second point, he said, gym owners are hoping city leaders will initiate a public relations campaign to make clear that working out in a gym full of vaccinated people is safe.
“It’s not enough to just lift the mandate,” he said.
Filed Under: California Watch