Surge: Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the decline. Courtesy image

Beginning Friday, fully vaccinated LA County residents will no longer be required to wear masks at establishments where vaccinations are verified.

But on Thursday, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer suggested any mask rules could prove short-lived as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was expected to update its recommendations on masking to lift requirements, which would likely trigger similar recommendations at the State and then County levels.

Ferrer said that businesses that wish to continue requiring masks are entitled to do so.

Those that do want to lift mandates immediately will only be able to do so for fully vaccinated customers/workers and only if everyone inside the business is vaccinated or if the unvaccinated individuals in the establishment have proof of a negative test. Even with a negative test, unvaccinated individuals are still required to wear a mask.

However, Ferrer suggested it may be wiser to just wait until rules change again.

“Given that we’re likely to be only a short bit away from lifting indoor masking requirements across the County, given our rapidly declining case rates, those establishments that have not yet established systems are verifying vaccinations or negative tests may want to delay building out any expensive verification systems and instead continue the indoor masking requirements until the County lifts these requirements without the need for the verifications,” Ferrer said.

The CDC on Friday was expected to announce a change to the metrics it uses to determine whether to recommend face coverings, shifting from looking at COVID-19 case counts to a more holistic view of risk from the coronavirus to a community. Under current guidelines, masks are recommended for people residing in communities of substantial or high transmission — roughly 95% of U.S. counties, according to the latest data.

The new metrics will still consider caseloads, but also take into account hospitalizations and local hospital capacity, which have been markedly improved during the emergence of the omicron variant. That strain is highly transmissible, but indications are that it is less severe than earlier strains, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated and boosted. Under the new guidelines, the vast majority of Americans will no longer live in areas where indoor masking in public is recommended, based on current data.

The likely course of action for that change would be the new recommendation by the CDC, followed by a new State of California recommendation. Then the LA County Board of Supervisors would weigh in, before the Health Department issued a new order. That could all happen by the end of next week.

“I anticipate it will take us a few days,” Ferrer said. “We’re very likely — let’s say they do release [changes] tomorrow. We’re very likely to use Tuesday’s [Supervisor] Board meeting as an opportunity to discuss, both with the Board and the public, what we envision and then we’ll spend that week, as we always do, reaching out to our sector partners and our labor partners, to hear from them and then, you know, hopefully by the end of the week, we’ve got the County’s plan.”

Ferrer emphasized that, at least for now, indoor masking was still required at all times in certain settings: “Schools, childcare facilities, youth settings, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless and emergency shelters, cooling centers, when riding public transport, [and] transit and transportation hubs.”

Ferrer added that, mandates aside, Public Health continues to recommend indoor masking, especially for the vulnerable and those who live with vulnerable people.

The Public Health Director stopped short of committing to full mask removal at schools, saying that the County would need to do analysis and look at local metrics before recommending a change to schools’ masking policies.

“I think we’ll have a lot more clarity on Monday about what the plan is for schools and then, as always, you know, our intent is to align as closely as possible,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer added that the LA County Public Health Department welcomes schools to retain mask mandates if administrators feel they are necessary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.