L.A.’s Mask Mandate Revives Old Divide as Virus Resurges
(Bloomberg) -- Days after Los Angeles reintroduced an indoor mask mandate, the nation’s second-largest city was revisiting debates many hoped were left in 2020.
Some people are reassured by the attempt to stop a resurgent Covid-19 outbreak, others shun it. Many are resigned to the latest step back from what had recently seemed like a return to normal.
“Hate it,” said Valerie Vandever, as she toured the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard with her husband Thursday. “We’re vaxxed. Why do we have to wear a mask?”
As Los Angeles County grapples with a surge in cases fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, officials have required masks for its 11 million residents, regardless of vaccine status, in indoor public settings -- just one month after California fully reopened.
The county reported 2,767 new cases Thursday, the fifth day since the rule took effect. That’s an 80% increase from last week and up from a few hundred per day a month ago. Across the U.S., the seven-day average of confirmed infections has topped 40,000 for the first time since early May, and the death toll is averaging 250 a day, a tripling of both rates in the past month.
Similar masking requirements may be coming elsewhere as vaccine uptake lags and a new wave of patients threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Several California counties, including San Francisco, are now recommending face coverings in indoor places. President Joe Biden has suggested masks become a requirement for pupils still too young to receive vaccines.
“The virus is highly infectious,” Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said at a media briefing on Thursday. “The virus is quickly going to find you if you don’t get vaccinated.”
In Los Angeles, Roma Vas, a saleswoman at the Paradise Hollywood souvenir shop, said she’s fully vaccinated, but worries about breakthrough cases. Some customers balk and shout when Vas asks them to mask up, but she insists.
“It can be hot and uncomfortable. But you have to look after yourself and look out for other people,” Vas said. “I don’t want to get sick and lose my job. After what happened last year, I’d rather have my mask.”
Mandating masks may have the unintended effect of discouraging vaccine-hesitant people from more effective protection, according to Jeffrey Klausner, a doctor who is a clinical professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. Masks may reduce transmission, but they can’t completely shield unvaccinated people from serious infection and illness, he said. And the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.
“It hurts people’s belief in the power of the vaccine,” Klausner said in a phone interview. “Now they’re saying, ‘Did I really need to get vaccinated?’”
The face-covering mandate also hinders the economic recovery, he said. “It definitely slows the return to work,” Klausner said. “It might have been the appropriate strategy in 2020 when we didn’t have the vaccine, but in 2021 when we have a safe and effective vaccine it makes much more sense to be doubling down on workplace vaccination requirements.”
Some public health experts support the mandate as a low-cost, all-of-the-above strategy.
“It’s just an extra precaution that still makes sense,” said Jamil Madi, chief of critical care at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, Texas. “Since we have an uptick and there’s a certain percentage of the population not vaccinated yet, and increased hospitalizations and ICUs -- we should probably continue masking.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted calls from City Council members and others to reinstate compulsory mask-wearing in the largest U.S. city.
“I don’t want people thinking, ‘I’m unvaccinated, I wear a mask, I’m fine.’ That’s just not true,” de Blasio said during a Wednesday news briefing. “When people are fixating on masks and not talking about vaccination, they’re missing the main event.”
Some government officials, especially in red states, have gone so far as to ban masking mandates, including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, both Republicans. By contrast, the mask order will return to the county and city of St. Louis starting Monday following a spike of cases, under a rule announced Friday.
When asked about masking mandates, California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who’s facing a recall vote in September, has repeatedly said that persuading the unvaccinated to get their shots is the key to fighting the pandemic.
Morgan Palmer, a “hospitality ambassador” at the Hollywood & Highland shopping center, said most people are resigned to wearing masks when they go inside, but a few customers still refuse.
He’s been vaccinated, but many of his friends aren’t. “They don’t trust the government,” Palmer said. “The more they try to enforce it, the less they’re going to want to do it.”
Across town, Diana Geiger, co-owner of L.A. Dancefit, which offers exercise classes to heart-pumping music, says her customers have been understanding this past week.
“We’ve had a really good experience with the new mask mandate,” said Geiger. “We don’t need to argue with the unvaccinated people about wearing a mask or having them say they feel violated for being asked -- now everyone has to do it.”
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