California changed its mask rules

This morning, the mask rules changed again in California. Here’s a guide to when and where you can taste a little of that mask freedom, and when you’ll need to don the old face diaper again.

Q: What’s the main mask rule change this morning?

A: California starting today is lifting the requirement for vaccinated people to wear face masks in all indoor public areas. That had been the rule statewide starting last June, but in mid-December the state reimposed the requirement that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear face masks in all indoor public places as the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus sent COVID-19 cases soaring. That rule ran through Feb. 15.

Q: So that’s the rule statewide now?

A: Not quite. The state still lets local health authorities impose stricter rules if they believe they’re needed. Public health authorities in at least two large California counties — Los Angeles and Santa Clara — have said they will maintain the indoor universal mask requirement a little while longer, as infection rates remain high.

Q: So what’s the deal in those counties?

A: Los Angeles County has had the strictest mask rules, applying even to outdoor events and school yards. On Tuesday, after criticism over tens of thousands of Super Bowl fans failed to wear masks, Los Angeles County said it will drop its outdoor masking requirements, but will maintain its indoor mask mandate for all regardless of vaccination. Santa Clara County didn’t have outdoor mask requirements, but said last week the universal indoor mask mandate will remain in place until case rates are lower.

Q: I’m unvaccinated. Can I go anywhere without a mask?

A: The mask requirement doesn’t apply outdoors, where ample ventilation greatly reduces transmission of the virus. But masks are required for unvaccinated people in indoor public settings. That includes businesses, retail stores, restaurants, theaters, family entertainment centers, meeting facilities, and state and local government offices serving the public.

Q: Since I’m vaccinated, am I good to go anywhere without a mask?

A: Nope. Not only does the state allow local health authorities to maintain stricter rules like in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties, but property owners may continue to require masks inside their establishments as well. And there are a number of settings where federal and state rules call for masks to be worn by all even if vaccinated. A big one is public transit — airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares — and transportation hubs like airports, bus terminals, marinas, train stations and seaports. They’re also still required in K-12 schools and childcare centers, emergency and homeless shelters, cooling and heating centers, health care facilities, jails, prisons and long term care facilities.

Q: When can my school kid unmask?

A: State officials this week said they will reassess the need for the mask requirement in K-12 schools Feb. 28, but cautioned the requirement won’t be lifting immediately after that. Though many parents have complained the mask rules are unfair to their kids, especially those who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, teachers and other families remain fearful of outbreaks in schools.

Q: How’s this going to be enforced?

A: In settings where masks are required only for unvaccinated people, businesses, venue operators or hosts that aren’t maintaining the requirement for all may allow visitors to “self-attest” they are vaccinated or implement a vaccine verification system.

Q: Is the state requiring any particular mask?

A: No. The state recommends surgical masks or higher-level respirators such as N95s, KN95s or KF94s. But a recent CDC study suggested even cloth masks reduce risks of testing positive by 56%, while surgical masks reduce the risk 66% and N95 or KN95s 83%.

Q: What about workplaces?

A: Those will continue to follow CalOSHA guidelines, which include requiring and providing masks for unvaccinated workers to wear indoors and in vehicles around others. Vaccinated workers may no longer be required to wear them indoors in many situations — though local orders and employers may require them.

Q: What does the CDC recommend?

A: The CDC continues to recommend that everyone, including the vaccinated, wear masks indoors in areas where transmission of the virus is “substantial” or “high.” That’s currently every U.S. state — California’s rate is more than four times the CDC’s “high” level. However, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that the agency reviewing its guidance in light of declining cases.

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