With just days until a new countywide indoor mask mandate was expected to come into effect, two LA County Supervisors on Tuesday pushed back against the proposed rule.

COVID-19 metrics in LA County moved into the “high” category as of July 14, triggering an automatic mask mandate that would go into effect two weeks later, according to rules currently in place, if infection rates and other metrics do not go back down before time is up — in this case, by Friday, July 29. But two county executives have voiced opposition to the proposal.

LA County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer regularly offers COVID-19 updates during LA County Board of Supervisor meetings and this Tuesday, July 26, was no different. But whereas Ferrer’s updates usually contain updates to numerical data such as hospitalization rates, test positivity rate and new cases, this week Ferrer’s presentation included the Department’s arguments for renewed indoor masking, as well as a pitch for continued vigilance against new variants of COVID-19.

Among Ferrer’s data points were sections on the prevalence of prolonged symptoms — “Long COVID” — the risk for reinfection and the increased risk for elderly people and other vulnerable residents as cases rise in the general population.

Ferrer also compared mask mandates to other public health mandates such as bans on indoor smoking and driving under the influence of alcohol.

“We have already seen that [COVID-19] risk is lowered when everyone wears masks, and we also already are subject to many other safety requirements that we must follow to reduce risk for both ourselves and others,” Ferrer said. “We no longer allow smoking by individuals in shared spaces. This reduces everyone’s exposure to the toxins that are present in cigarette smoke. We require many thousands of individual food handlers to always wash their hands before they handle food. There are many laws related to automobile safety that we must all follow, even though as we have seen, there are far fewer deaths from car accidents in LA County than from COVID.”

During the meeting, Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, representing Santa Monica and the westside, urged masking to protect vulnerable service workers who commute across her district from lower-income neighborhoods — she specifically cited Pacoima and Sylmar — into wealthy ones.

“I certainly want to say to my constituents how important it is to protect those people whom we take for granted as the people who serve us, because over the course of the pandemic, as you recall, Pacoima and Sylmar were often at the very top of the percentage of infections,” Kuehl said. “That’s not to take anything away from other communities in East and South LA and everywhere else, but just to say, the Third [District] has our share, as well, of workers whom people who don’t wear masks are putting at risk.”

But two Supervisors spoke out against the reinstatement of mandates. Representatives for LA County’s fourth and fifth districts each said they received strong pushback against the reinstatement of indoor masking in the nearly two weeks since the impending mandate was first announced.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, representing the Fifth District, encompassing the far northern areas of the county including Santa Clarita, Palmdale, Lancaster and the Angeles National Forest, penned a public letter on Monday saying she would not support a return to mask mandates (but said she personally would wear a mask when she deemed it appropriate).

“Lastly, I’d like to clarify that I am not against using masks. I believe ‘masking-up’ makes a lot of sense for individuals who want or need an extra layer of protection. I support our current COVID-19 public health masking policies, which require their use while using public transportation, in hospitals, homeless shelters and jails. However, imposing a one-size-fits-all masking mandate now for all is not something I can or will support,” Barger wrote. “As I’ve said countless times, to effectively fight the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate its effects, we need clarity and consistency. This means trusting the public to make personal COVID-19 prevention decisions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, promoting the efficacy of vaccines and boosters, and investing in equitable access to COVID-19 treatments.”

Following Ferrer’s presentation on Tuesday, Supervisor Janice Hahn, representing the far southern part of LA County including Long Beach, Rancho Palos Verdes, Cerritos, La Mirada and Whittier, said that her constituents had sent her hundreds of letters opposing the impending mandate.

“My office has received thousands of phone calls, emails, letters from people who are vehemently against us reinstating the indoor mask mandate on July 29,” Hahn said, adding that small business owners told her they were particularly concerned about the burden of enforcement. She also said many people voiced confusion over why mandates were necessary when hospitals were not overwhelmed.

“I’m representing the people that are calling my office, I’m their voice, sometimes more than my own voice,” Hahn said.

Ferrer suggested the constituents who wrote in against mandates were anti-mask, but Hahn said many of them had been on board with previous mask rules.

Hahn suggested LA County Public Health consider a compromise, mandating masks in grocery stores and pharmacies as additional “essential” businesses, but hold off on imposing mandates in other indoor spaces. 

Ferrer said her office would take that suggestion under consideration.

LA County Department of Public Health was scheduled to present a COVID-19 update on Thursday afternoon, July 28. At that update, Ferrer was expected to announce whether a mask mandate would be put back into place the following day.

emily@smdp.com