Joining a growing list of communities challenging the return of COVID-era indoor masking requirements, the Palmdale City Council will consider a resolution to not enforce future Los Angeles County facemask mandates at its Wednesday, Aug. 3 meeting.
Citing continued downward trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, county Department of Public Health officials scrubbed plans to re-impose a universal indoor mask-wearing mandate that would have taken effect Friday. Nonetheless, the possibility prompted much debate over the past week and at least five cities have said they will not enforce broader indoor mask rules should the county reinstall them. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted that should the county see another surge in cases, the idea of a masking mandate will still be on the table, although she said current statistics indicate such a move is unlikely.
“We believe our residents should have the right to choose whether or not to wear masks,” said Palmdale Mayor Steven D. Hofbauer in a statement. “We favor allowing our residents to decide for themselves based on their individual medical risk assessments.”
The City Council meets 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 38300 Sierra Highway, Suite B, in Palmdale.
“It is expected that if, in the future, the number of COVID cases in Los Angeles County rose, that the Health Department may opt to issue County-wide health orders to require masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” a city staff report backing the resolution reads. “This resolution is intended to allow the public to choose for themselves whether to wear a mask in public. This resolution would result in a commitment to not use city resources to enforce against the public any future COVID-related indoor mask mandate of the Los Angeles County Health Department.”
The staff report cites possible savings “by allowing staff and the sheriff to do other work.”
On Wednesday, the city of El Segundo announced it would not enforce a county masking mandate, mirroring a decision made Monday night by the city of Beverly Hills. “As we approach the third year of the pandemic, we are not where we were in 2020,” Mayor Drew Boyles, who called the special council meeting, said in a statement. “My City Council colleagues and I strongly believe the decision to wear a mask should be the choice of the individual and should not be imposed by L.A. County.
The cities of Long Beach and Pasadena — both of which operate their own health departments separate from the county — announced Tuesday they would not issue mask mandates, even if the county did.
Both Long Beach and Pasadena officials said they would continue to monitor the COVID situation. Pasadena officials said they would “consider appropriate public health actions to protect our community as the situation changes.”
Previously, scattered communities around the county have been critical of the public health officials’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly rules that impacted businesses, including a wave of restrictions during the pandemic’s peak on indoor dining, which were subsequently lifted when the outbreak eased late last year. Some cities, including West Covina, have investigated launching their own independent health departments. None have yet to be created; the process is complex and expensive — and require approval from the state.
West Covina Mayor Dario Castellanos said that the state continues to work on the city’s attempt to form its own health department.
“The latest update is that the state is still working on it,” he said. “We get frequent updates from them.”
Castellanos said it’s his understanding that new state laws must be set up to allow municipalities to make such a move. During a November 2021 interview, City Manager David Carmany said, “They (state officials) are preparing those rules which will govern the application process.”
Castellanos said the decision to enforce or not enforce any mandate would come via a vote of the City Council; he expects that to be on the Aug. 16 agenda.
“The main reason for me would be the difficulty with enforcing such a mandate,” he said Thursday. “It would be nearly impossible for us to do dedicate police power to something like that. But even if we had the police power, I wouldn’t do it because the science and the date doesn’t support that there’s really an impact on transmission and safety.”
Castellanos is in the healthcare field, and he said he continues to wear a mask in that work setting. But he intimated people in general are sick of mask-wearing.
“I’m tired of the masks,” he said. “They’re super annoying. I’m in healthcare, so I see it all the time. Healthcare, it’s still mandated; that never went away. But I’ve seen several emergency rooms, it’s not being enforced. I’ve seen it (at) a ton of doctor’s offices, it’s not being enforced. I think there’s just burnout from the masks.”
For the moment, sweeping indoor mask rules are a moot point. Ferrer told reporters in an online briefing Thursday that the county’s average daily number of new COVID cases over the past week was about 5,900 per day, down from 6,750 a week ago. There were 1,239 COVID-positive patients hospitalized in the county as of Thursday, down from 1,329 a week ago.
She also noted that the average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus has been holding mostly steady.
According to Ferrer, the decline in new infection numbers is “potentially signaling a downward trend in cases.” She said hospitalizations have also begun declining “for the first time since mid-April.”
Declines in new cases and hospitalizations will likely also lead to a reduction in virus-related deaths, she said.
Ferrer had previously said that a new indoor masking mandate would be imposed if the county remained in the “high” virus activity level category as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for two weeks. The county entered the “high” category exactly two weeks ago when the average daily rate of new COVID-related hospital admissions rose above 10 per 100,000 residents. That put the county on track to impose a new masking mandate on Friday.
As of Thursday afternoon, the CDC still put the county’s rate of COVID hospital admissions in the “high” category at 11.5 per 100,000, Ferrer said, but that rate only took into account patient numbers through Monday. The county, however, examined the numbers through Wednesday, which put the rate at 9.7 per 100,000 — enough to move the county back into the “medium” virus activity level.
Ferrer said that figure is “a good reason not to move forward” with an indoor masking mandate, even though it’s likely the county will officially remain in the CDC’s “high” category for at least another week.
Despite the decision against a mandate, masks are still required in some indoor spaces — health care facilities, transit hubs, on transit vehicles, airports, correctional facilities and shelters. A universal mandate would have spread the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, indoor events, indoor restaurants and bars and schools.
Ferrer said Thursday that despite the county’s decision against a mandatory mask-wearing mandate, face coverings are still strongly recommended in locations beyond those where they are required.
“While we are still in this surge, indoor masking is strongly advised everywhere else,” she said. Scores of Southern California medical professionals echoed her sentiments.
“From my standpoint,” said Dr. Thomas Yadegar, medical director of intensive care at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, “the mandate should have probably have gone in effect a few weeks ago.”
Yadegar said his unit has seen an “obvious” uptick in COVID-19 patients — along with increases in outpatient office visits, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations.
Los Angeles was one of the few counties in the state considering such a move — until they held off.
After climbing into the “high” category last week, Riverside and San Bernardino counties dropped back into the CDC’s medium community level on Thursday. Orange County continues to be ranked “high,” but local officials have not pushed toward a mask mandate.
L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger issued a statement Monday saying she will not support a new mask mandate. She said she agrees that masks are an effective tool against virus spread, but does not believe imposing a mandate will have the desired effect.
“I am adamantly opposed to mandating the masking, because I truly do believe it’s going to have the opposite effect,” Barger said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
Supervisor Janice Hahn joined Barger in opposing a possible mandate, saying she fears imposing such a rule would be “very divisive for L.A. County.”
Ferrer said Thursday residents should not fall into complacency in response to the county’s decision against a mask mandate. She reiterated that transmission of COVID-19 remains high across the county, and the virus is still a leading cause of death, killing more people in the first six months of the year than drug overdoses, the flu and traffic crashes combined. The number of cases announced by the county each day are also believed to be an undercount, since many people rely on at-home tests, the results of which are not always reported to health officials.
The county reported 7,009 new COVID cases on Thursday, raising the overall total from throughout the pandemic to 3,286,471. Another 18 deaths were reported, giving the county a cumulative virus-related death toll of 32,691.
The number of COVID-positive patients in county hospitals remained unchanged Friday at 1,239, down from 1,280 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 138 were being treated in intensive care, down from 147 a day earlier.
Following Ferrer’s announcement taking a mask-mandate off the table, Barger issued a statement praising the move, saying “unenforceable mandates don’t work.”
“I’m hopeful that we will now be able to move on from this heightened focus on masking mandates to what really matters — focusing on promoting the efficacy of vaccines and boosters, improving access to COVID-19 treatments, and continuing to educate our county’s residents on the benefits of masking,” Barger said. “I am comfortable leaving this decision in the public’s very capable hands.”
County Supervisor Hilda Solis also issued a statement saying she thought it was “prudent” for the county to pause a possible new mask mandate, although she continued to urge “vulnerable residents” to wear mask. But she also had harsh words for people who lashed out at Ferrer and other health officials over the suggestion of a new mandate.
“There is no place for the hateful rhetoric and threats that have been directed at our public health experts who have dedicated all their time and energy to keeping our county’s residents healthy and safe,” Solis said. “While there may be disagreements, we must treat one another with dignity and respect, and I ask as always that our residents continue to look out for one another to keep our communities healthy and safe.”
Staff writers Robert Morales, Clara Harter and City News Service contributed to this report