California state health authorities on Monday announced they are loosening some COVID-19 mandates next week, including ending the indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people.
The changes come as the state sees a steady decline in COVID-19 cases numbers following an omicron-driven surge that triggered a statewide return to indoor masking.
Now, though some hospitals are still over capacity, numbers are either plateauing or declining in most of the state, officials said, adding that California has also seen a 65% drop in case rates since omicron’s peak.
“Omicron has loosened its hold on California, vaccines for children under 5 are around the corner, and access to COVID-19 treatments is improving,” State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón said in a statement. “With things moving in the right direction, we are making responsible modifications to COVID-19 prevention measures, while also continuing to develop a longer-term action plan for the state.”
Starting Feb. 16, Californians will see these loosened COVID-19 rules:
The statewide indoor masking requirement will expire after Feb. 15, moving the state back to previous guidance that mandates face coverings only for unvaccinated people in all indoor public settings, like shops, gyms, bars and movie theaters.
Masks will still be required for everyone — regardless of vaccination status — at higher risk settings like buses, subways, train stations, hospitals, homeless shelters and other congregate living areas.
Children and teachers will also still have to mask up indoors at K-12 schools. In San Diego County, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to ask state public health officials for a “safe and responsible” path toward phasing out pandemic-related mask requirements at schools.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Chair Nathan Fletcher said vaccine availability for children has “put us in a position to begin phasing out those restrictions.”
However, officials said they’re working on updating the guidance for classrooms.
“The state is continuing to work with education, public health and community leaders to update masking requirements at schools to adapt to changing conditions and ensure the safety of kids, teachers, and staff,” the California Department of Public Health said in a statement.
State officials said they expect to announce “additional adjustments” to the state’s policies in the coming week.
While the state is loosening its mask requirements, local jurisdictions can still opt to keep stricter mask mandates.
That’s the case for L.A. County, which is keeping its mask mandate for vaccinated people after the state drops its requirement.
The county last week laid out a plan for loosening mask requirements, and it hinges on the county hitting specific hospitalization and case numbers.
L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the county prefers its plan for loosening restrictions over “an arbitrary date that’s actually not tied to the conditions in the community.”
“I will say, unequivocally, that we should not be lifting a masking mandate when we’re reporting thousands and thousands of new cases every day,” Ferrer said. “That doesn’t make sense to us.”
The statewide mask mandate had been lifted last year and reinstated in December thanks to the spread of the highly-contagious omicron variant. Meant to last just one month, officials later extended the mandate through February as the surge brought record-breaking infection numbers.
The state is also changing its definitions for “mega” events like sporting events and concerts after Feb. 15.
During the surge, the state made it so that indoor events of 500 people were considered “mega” events that require COVID-19 vaccine verification.
Definitions will go back to pre-surge guidance, meaning that only indoor events of 1,000 or more attendees will be required to check for vaccine status or negative coronavirus test results.
L.A. County also requires vaccine verification at outdoor mega events of 5,000 or more attendees, and that includes major venues like SoFi Stadium and Dodger Stadium.
Long-term care facilities and hospitals
Also, strict visitation requirements that took effect for long-term care facilities and hospitals last month expired on Monday.
Nursing facilities will still have to verify that visitors are fully vaccinated or that they have evidence of a negative coronavirus test. Unvaccinated visitors who can’t show a negative test results will only be able to have an outdoor visit.
City News Service contributed to this report.