Indoor mask mandate to stay in Santa Clara County—for now
Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody speaks in December 2021 on rising omicron infections and a new limited health order for high-risk settings. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Santa Clara County is keeping its indoor mask mandate even when the state and several neighboring counties are ready to ease back some COVID-19 restrictions as soon as next week.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state health department announced Monday that California will begin pulling back some of its COVID-19 rules, starting with the mask mandate. State officials cited a 65% drop in COVID infections this week since the peak of the omicron surge in mid-January.

    Under the state’s order, those who are vaccinated for COVID can frequent grocery stores, restaurants and other public indoor settings without wearing a mask starting Feb. 16—nearly two years after the state first implemented the mandate. The order remains in place for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, on public transit or in K-12 schools, hospitals, jails, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

    People who are not vaccinated will have to keep their masks on.

    The lifting of the state mandate will apply to counties without a local mask order, but in Santa Clara County, residents will have to continue masking up in public indoor settings—at least for the time being.

    “We must continue to base our decisions on the risks COVID-19 presents to our community,” Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said Wednesday. “And we look forward to lifting the indoor mask requirement as soon as we can do so without putting vulnerable people at undue risk.”

    State law allows counties to implement their own health orders, and residents will have to follow the local rules even after the statewide mandates are lifted. Last October, Santa Clara County joined a coalition of Bay Area jurisdictions to set a number of conditions, including moderate COVID-19 transmission rates and low and stable hospitalization rates, to lift the local mask mandate, but plans derailed after omicron hit the region.

    Cody said Santa Clara County has achieved one of three metrics set forth by the coalition last year: a vaccination rate of more than 80%. Approximately 89.5% of residents ages 5 and up are fully inoculated. The two remaining metrics that haven’t been met yet relate to hospitalizations and new daily infections.

    After experiencing the biggest surge in COVID infections after the holiday season, county officials said Tuesday that the South Bay is heading in the right direction—with the number of COVID cases starting to drop and the hospitalization rate plateauing. But those numbers remain too high to lift the mask mandate, Cody added.

    The seven-day rolling average of new COVID infections in the county dropped from 3,883 on Jan. 5 to 1,922 as of this week, the latest data from the county shows. County officials said they want to see the seven-day average drop to 550 for at least a week.

    Vaccinations, booster shots and masking continue to be effective methods to avoid infections and hospitalizations, officials said.

    “In the meantime, we need to continue to do what’s needed to keep our community protected,” Cody said. “Universal indoor masking is critical to protect our community, especially community members who are older or immunocompromised. Continuing to mask indoors should also allow our case rates to continue to drop quickly.”

    Local health experts said the state’s decision to end its mask mandate comes at a great time. They expect Bay Area counties will eventually follow suit.

    “We can’t keep (the mask mandate) forever,” George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, told San José Spotlight. “I’m happy that it’s after the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day. It makes a lot of sense.”

    San Francisco County already rolled back its rules on indoor masking in some settings as of Feb. 1. Marin and Solano counties told news organizations they will abide with the state’s masking guidelines, as other Bay Area counties are still evaluating their own mandates.

    Under the state’s order, local businesses can still opt to require masks inside their workplace and ask workers and patrons to show vaccination status upon entry.

    County supervisors said local businesses are bombarding them about lifting the indoor mask mandate.

    “Businesses, from yoga studios to retail stores everywhere, they feel masks are no longer necessary inside businesses,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman, advocating for the county to increase its public outreach efforts about local rules remaining intact.

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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