California mask mandate to return as virus cases rise

Statewide measure aims to contain new coronavirus variant as people gather for holidays

Signs with social distancing guidelines and facemask requirements are posted at an outdoor mall amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles. AP
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California is bringing back a rule requiring people to wear masks indoors, a move aimed at containing the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus as people gather with family and friends during the holidays.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration announced the new mandate will start on Wednesday and last until January 15. The order comes as the per capita rate of new coronavirus cases in California jumped 47 per cent in the past two weeks.

“We know people are tired and hungry for normality. Frankly, I am too,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr Mark Ghaly said this week. “That said, this is a critical time where we have a tool that we know has worked and can work.”

California lifted its statewide mask mandate on June 15 for people who were vaccinated, a date Mr Newsom heralded as the state's grand reopening. But since then, county governments covering about half of the state's population have imposed their own indoor mask mandates as case rates surged due to new variants.

The new mask mandate will cover everyone else, but state officials on Monday were unclear about how it would be enforced.

Mr Newsom has issued lots of other coronavirus mandates, including requiring state employees, healthcare workers and, soon, public school pupils and teachers to be vaccinated.

California joins other states with similar indoor mask mandates, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, Hawaii and New York.

State officials are afraid of a repeat of last winter, when the state averaged more than 100 cases per 100,000 people during a monster winter surge of the virus when about 20,000 people died during an eight-week period.

But that surge was before vaccines were available. Today, more than 70 per cent of California's residents who are eligible have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even with the recent increase in cases, the state is averaging a little more than 14 cases per day per 100,000 people.

Even so, Dr Ghaly said hospitals in several counties with low vaccination rates are still struggling with lots of patients, including parts of Southern California in Riverside, San Bernardino, Mono and Inyo counties. Dr Ghaly said coronavirus hospital admissions often increase in the weeks following a jump in new cases.

California is also tightening existing testing requirements by ordering unvaccinated people attending indoor events of 1,000 people or more to have a negative test within one or two days, depending on the type of test. The state also is recommending travellers who visit or return to California to be tested within five days of their arrival.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 8:21 PM