San Jose’s COVID-19 mask mandate is coming to an end almost two years after it was adopted.
The city’s masking guidelines now align with the county and state, which lifted mask mandates earlier this year in almost all public indoor settings. The City Council unanimously approved ending local restrictions Tuesday with no discussion.
Residents, regardless of vaccination status, are no longer required to wear a mask except in certain high-risk settings such as hospitals, jails, homeless shelters, long-term care facilities and on public transit.
Health experts and city officials said while masks are still an effective tool against COVID-19, the timing makes sense to ease restrictions. This is because vaccinations are high and transmission rates are low. The seven day rolling average of new infections in Santa Clara County is 167—a stark difference from 1,922 in early February. More than 90% of the county’s eligible population is vaccinated and about 69% is boosted, as of Monday.
“It’s also a time of year when most people are outdoors so it’s as good a time as any to discontinue the mandates,” said Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco. “We just have to be aware of potential backtracking in winter or in the future.”
The mask mandate, implemented June 2020, was one of the few remaining local regulations from the pandemic-era, as closures and vaccine mandates have reversed in San Jose. But like checking or requiring vaccines, business owners can still mandate masks in their own stores if desired.
“I think leaving the decision to businesses is a good thing,” Councilmember Sergio Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “Most businesses are probably catering to the needs and wants of their clientele. So I think that some businesses will continue to ask for masks, but others are not.”
Michelle Mello, public health law professor at Stanford University, said the council’s vote is more a question of the city’s role, rather than the role of masks.
“The question they’re trying to answer is, are things bad enough that taking away people’s choices is justified?” Mello told San José Spotlight. “I think it’s a reasonable time to raise that question, but it’s not a message that everyone should whip off their masks and go about their business.”
Mello continued that COVID cases will likely rise with the mask mandate lifted. But she has confidence residents will continue masking, as many have been in neighboring cities that do not require face coverings.
“That is a natural consequence of lifting measures that we know are very effective in containing them,” Mello said. “But we also can’t live under those measures forever.”
Santa Clara County lifted its mask mandate on March 2, two weeks after the state. South Bay officials have long touted their COVID prevention efforts have been stricter than those at the state and federal level—moves that have drawn criticism and frustration from residents.
However, Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody previously said these efforts helped save an additional 2,000 lives. If Santa Clara County had the same death rate as the state, the toll would have been closer to 4,000 people, according to the county’s calculation. The county would have lost more than 5,000 people if it had been at the national rate. The current death rate is 2,217.
“Masks are a critical tool we can use to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Councilmember Pam Foley told San José Spotlight. “But I miss being able to see people’s smiling faces. Facial expressions are so important in creating empathy, compassion, understanding and for conducting business.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.