COVID cases and hospitalizations are surging again. But neither the governor nor leaders of Inland counties appear inclined to reimpose mask orders, contrary to the advice of some medical and public health experts.
There’s now an effective and available COVID- 19 vaccine, and the latest surge isn’t as big as previous spikes that overwhelmed hospitals. But Inland county supervisors have been wary of appearing more restrictive than Sacramento.
And Gov. Newsom, who is facing a Sept. 14 recall, might be reluctant to do anything to further antagonize voters.
Newsom has required state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated or be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week, and health care workers must be vaccinated by Sept. 30.
With limited exceptions, California requires indoor masks for those over age 2 at K-12 schools, on public transit, in health care settings, in adult and senior care facilities and at state and local detention centers.
The unvaccinated are required to wear a mask in all indoor public spaces.
But state Department of Public Health officials danced around the question of whether a universal statewide mask mandate is in the cards.
“Our updated masking guidance incorporates recent [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance and recommends universal mask use for indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status,” a department statement read. “As always, local health jurisdictions may put in place guidance more restrictive than the state based on local conditions.”
LA County Masks Up; IE Defaults
Los Angeles County made national headlines in mid-July by requiring masks in all indoor public areas whether a person is vaccinated or not. But that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
“The county has no plans to create any local health orders or mandates beyond what is required by the state,” San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said via email.
Not adopting local health orders, and “effectively defaulting to state health orders helps to avoid confusion and ensure consistency,” Wert added.
In an emailed statement, Riverside County public health spokesman Jose Arballo Jr. said: “While face masks have shown to be effective in slowing the spread of COVID- 19, vaccinations are the best solution to stopping the pandemic. We urge all those who have not yet been vaccinated and who are eligible to get vaccinated.”
Supervisor Karen Spiegel, who chairs the Riverside County board, emailed a statement mirroring Arballo’s urging the unvaccinated to get their shots.
“As we have done since May of last year, we will continue to follow state COVID guidelines and recommendations on masking,” she said.
Feeling the Surge, But Will Wait & See
While not on par with past surges, the Inland Empire is seeing a rise in cases and hospitalizations. As of Aug. 1, Riverside County had five times as many hospitalized COVID- 19 patients as on July 1, while in San Bernardino County, the number of cases reported since July 28 was the largest since February.
Some cities aren’t waiting on Sacramento or their counties.
Last Monday, Riverside officials announced masks would be required of employees and visitors in City Hall.
The Palm Springs City Council this month required vaccinations or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to go inside city bars and restaurants. And masks are already needed to enter a San Bernardino County courthouse and, starting Monday, to enter a Riverside County courthouse.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties imposed local mask orders in April 2020 before rescinding them in early May. In Riverside County, the decision came following two marathon public hearings filled with emotional testimony from those who saw masks as a form of tyranny and those who argued they saved lives.
Emotions about masks, especially in schools, remain high a year later. Parents angry about school mask requirements have flocked to Inland school board meetings. In Redlands, officials called police after people ripped up signs and banged on doors demanding to speak on the issue at a school board meeting.
In the past, supervisors in both counties have said they don’t want county rules to be roadblocks to businesses recovering from the pandemic. In a phone interview Friday, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors chairman Curt Hagman said focusing on getting more people vaccinated is a better strategy than requiring masks and that politics isn’t motivating his reasoning.
When the county required masks last year, there was no vaccine and health orders such as requiring masks made more sense, said Hagman, who said he is vaccinated.
“At this point, all those resources are out there,” he said. “If people don’t want to get vaccinated for whatever reason … they know the risk they take.”
The pandemic continues to hit close to home for Riverside County supervisors. Spiegel, who had the virus last summer and said she’s been vaccinated, was among at least four supervisors and an unknown number of county employees who had to temporarily quarantine late last month after a positive COVID-19 test at county headquarters.
An Effective Tool Some Despise
The Riverside County Medical Association is among those who would like to see a new local mask mandate.
“Masks are recognized as one of the most effective available tools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” an association statement read. “The evidence is clear that masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the more people wearing masks, the better.”
Richard Carpiano, a public health expert and professor of public policy at UC Riverside, also supports a new mask order, especially since the Delta variant is more transmissible.
As cases surge, “you see storm clouds on the horizon. This is the time to take action,” he said. “If you see a storm coming, you don’t wait until it’s here.