Updated at 3:38 p.m.
California will keep its existing mask requirements in place for another month, state health officials announced Monday.
As other states loosen or discard mask rules in the wake of new federal guidance that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear face coverings, the Golden State will stay its course until June 15, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a media call.
“This four-week period will give Californians time to prepare for this change” while it continues to vaccinate as many people as possible, he said.
The delay is “in no way saying the science or the direction by the CDC is wrong or there's a challenge to it,” Ghaly said. “It’s really just giving ourselves across the state some additional time to have it implemented.”
More than 15.5 million Californians have been fully vaccinated, roughly half of those eligible for the shot and about 39% of the state’s total population, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. Another 4.7 million are partially vaccinated.
The state is still on track to drop its color-tier system and many of the pandemic restrictions that come with it on June 15, Ghaly said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that fully vaccinated adults could go without masks indoors and outdoors in most situations. Mask requirements remain in place in certain settings, such as public transportation and health care.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that the change was based on real-world studies on the effectiveness of vaccines combined with declining COVID-19 case rates in the United States. Still, Walendsky said the CDC was deferring to local jurisdictions to set mask policies.
"So, for example, we do suggest that local jurisdictions look at their own vaccination rates, look at their own case rate in their area, because the country is not uniform with regard to both cases and vaccine scale-up, and to make some of those policies locally," Walensky told PBS Newshour last week.
California currently requires people to wear masks in most indoor settings — though fully vaccinated people can go maskless outdoors except at crowded events like concerts or sporting events.
“I think the state is being smart” by holding off on loosening mask guidelines, said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at UC San Francisco.
Wachter believes the CDC dropped mask requirements for fully-vaccinated people prematurely. He said it would make sense to loosen masking requirements for fully vaccinated people in areas where transmission is lower and higher rates of people are vaccinated.
“But there are lots of parts of the country where there's still a lot of COVID around,” he said. “I think you're gonna see a lot of unvaccinated people take their masks off” and potentially spread the disease, he added.
Wachter said ideally, between 60-70% of the entire population would be fully vaccinated before the state relaxes mask rules, though he added there’s no “magic number.”
“It really is more a matter of not only how many people are vaccinated, but how little COVID is there in the community,” he said.
California has among the lowest rates of new coronavirus cases in the nation. On Monday, the test-positivity rate dropped to 0.9%, the first time it has been below 1% since the pandemic began.
Many states that still required masks before the latest CDC guidance have already updated their rules to align with the new recommendations. Last week Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said the state would align its guidelines with the CDC, as did the governors of Colorado, Oregon and Washington — the other states in the Western States Compact that have been coordinating COVID-19 response with California throughout the pandemic.
Republicans — including candidates seeking to replace Newsom in a likely recall election — slammed the governor and his administration for keeping the mask rules in place while California’s new case rates continue to drop and more people become inoculated.
"The CDC has now made it clear that masks are no longer necessary for vaccinated individuals while indoors and outdoors," former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer wrote in a statement. "Unfortunately, Gavin Newsom continues to blatantly disregard the CDC's guidance, forcing businesses and schools to close for months while Californians pay the price. It's time for him to finally follow the science."
John Cox, another GOP candidate, wrote that Newsom “wants to take credit for spending billions of dollars” in his revised budget proposal “but then goes into hiding when he has something unpopular to announce.”
Republican Caitlyn Jenner wrote in a tweet: “It’s never been about ‘science’ for @GavinNewsom he shuts us down because his special interest friends told him to.”
When the state does loosen its mask rules, officials say cities and counties may continue to keep stricter face covering requirements if they choose.
When the state aligns with current CDC guidance on masks, it may not apply to workers on the clock. Rules regarding mask-wearing in the workplace are determined by Cal/OSHA and must be updated by that agency, Ghaly said.
The agency may update certain pandemic workplace safety measures later this week, according to the Sacramento Bee. If adopted, the new rules would allow masks to come off in workplaces where all employees and any customers are fully vaccinated and no one has coronavirus symptoms, among other things.
A number of businesses, including Walmart, have said they will stop requiring masks for customers in its stores, except in states or cities that still have mask rules in place.
“We expect businesses in California to adhere to where the state is and move to implement these standards and prepare for them on June 15 as opposed to now,” Ghaly said.
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