California Citizens Get State's Blessing To Start Unmasking Soon

But not so fast, Angelenos. No return to normal for you.


Good news for most (but unfortunately not nearly all) residents of California: Officials will be lifting the state's indoor mask mandate next week for those who are vaccinated.

California's on the other side of the omicron spike now, and new infections are plunging. On Monday afternoon, state health officials announced they'll be ending the indoor mask mandate on February 15 (sorry to everybody with Valentine's Day dates—be sure to smile with your eyes!) and increasing attendance limits to outdoor activities.

Officials also announced they're rethinking school masking mandates, so children may soon be free from masking up at all times indoors.

It's also worth noting the political timing of this announcement, which comes right on the heels of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed all being photographed at a Los Angeles Rams playoff game in Inglewood without masks.

While it would be great to celebrate the return to a certain level of normalcy, not everybody in California will get to participate. Only the state's order will be lifted. Counties that have implemented their own mask mandates have the freedom to continue them. The most populous county in California—Los Angeles County—has announced that it will not be lifting its mandate. Most other counties seem happy to let the mask mandates go, but the 10 million people who live in the borders of L.A. County (and those who come into the county) will still have to mask up indoors, and county health officials have their own calculations for when they'll let people unmask.

At the end of January, one county supervisor, Kathryn Barger, called for the lifting of the county's masking policy, noting that "they're not consistently followed or enforced. We need to trust the public to make the best personal decisions for themselves based on their unique risks and circumstances."

And that's pretty much what happened when Los Angeles County temporarily lifted its mask mandate last summer. Some people took their masks off. Others who were still uncomfortable left them on. I was frequently the only unmasked person in my local grocery store. Nobody harassed me for not wearing a mask, and I didn't think ill of people who decided to keep wearing theirs.

Supervisor Holly Mitchell disagrees, telling the Los Angeles Times, "COVID-19 transmissions, quite frankly, disproportionately impact the everyday workers who make up the backbone of this very local economy. They are disproportionately brown and Black workers who must go to their jobs every day and interact with people every day."

Mitchell told the Times she supports the masking mandate because masks help reduce transmission. More and more research about masks and transmission is showing that claim to not be entirely true. The Times follows up her quote by referencing a new study published Friday and promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Monday that claims masks of all types have been proven to reduce the likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19.

Here's how the Los Angeles Times summarized the study results:

People who wore N95 or KN95 masks in public indoor settings had an 83% lower chance of testing positive; those who wore surgical masks had a 66% lower chance; and those who wore cloth masks had a 56% lower chance.

That's certainly what the CDC wanted the media and public to take away from the study, but that's not actually what the study indicates. Reason's Jacob Sullum noted on Monday that the study actually acknowledged that the results for wearing cloth masks were not statistically significant. And the way the study was carried out actually makes it impossible to determine whether masks or other factors were responsible for the lower transmission rates for those wearing surgical or KN95 masks.

"Following the science" should mean actually paying attention to what the science says, but here the Times is repeating a government agency's inaccurate interpretation of the science. That's not the same thing.