Updated at 4:15 p.m.
California will continue to loosen indoor mask rules next month. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday the state will no longer require face coverings indoors for unvaccinated people beginning March 1, and students and school staff will be able to shed their masks on March 12.
Instead, face coverings will be “strongly recommended” for all individuals in schools and other public settings, though local governments may choose to impose stricter safety measures than the state.
Face coverings are still required for all people in high-risk or congregant settings including public transportation, medical facilities, nursing homes, jails and homeless shelters.
Newsom said the state continues to adjust its pandemic-related guidelines based on the “latest data and science.
“Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high,” Newsom said in a statement. “We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week relaxed its mask guidance for communities with medium or low rates of transmission, though some infectious disease experts say they will keep their masks on a bit longer.
California and many local governments stopped requiring masks for vaccinated people in businesses and other indoor spaces earlier this month as new COVID-19 cases dropped. At the time, state health secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the virus was still spreading at a high enough rate that he would not end the mask requirement in schools. He said he would review the state’s COVID-19 data and make a decision at the end of February.
“We’re seeing really encouraging trends,” Ghaly said on a call with reporters Monday. “This feels like the right time. There’s data that supports it, both on the transmission end and on the hospital impact side.”
Ghaly predicted that in 10 days’ time, most California counties would be considered ‘low transmission’ by the CDC.
Ghaly said case rates and hospitalizations are projected to fall even lower in the next two weeks, which would provide further protection for children, who lag behind other age groups in vaccination rates. He also pointed out California has one of the lowest rates of pediatric hospitalization rates from COVID-19 in the nation and implied the lingering school mask requirements played a role.
E. Toby Boyd, President of the California Teachers Association, said educators “share the optimism” of the Newsom administration that declining cases and hospitalizations “allow us to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.”
Boyd applauded the governor for allowing local governments and school boards to take stronger measures, but warned reaction to the relaxed mask rules will be mixed.
“While some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid,” he said in a statement. “We urge local school districts to continue to work with educators and families and to act cautiously while prioritizing the safety of students, educators, and their families.”
School mask requirements have increasingly caused contention among parents, school boards, teachers and students. Parents have protested the lingering requirement, while some school boards, including in Roseville and Grass Valley, bucked the state and voted to drop mask requirements in their schools. Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley was closed Thursday after teachers called out sick in protest.
Majorities of parents and voters support school mask requirements, according to a recent poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. It found 61% of parents approve of mask requirements in schools. For parents with children in traditional public schools, that number was 65%.
Liberal voters and voters of color were also more likely to support school mask requirements, according to the survey. It showed 82% of Black voters, 76% of Asian and Pacific Islander voters, and 87% of registered Democrats support requiring K-12 students and educators to wear masks in school this year.
Elk Grove Unified School District leaders told staff and families in a letter Monday afternoon that they are “looking forward to updated guidance from Sacramento County Public Health” and intend to lift mask rules beginning March 12. With nearly 64,000 students, EGUSD is the 5th largest district in the state.
Some parent groups called for the school mask requirement to be lifted sooner than March 12.
“The CDC made clear on Friday that there is no distinction between schools and other indoor spaces,” said Megan Bacigalupi with California Parent Power, formerly OpenSchools California, which was formed last year. “The statewide indoor mask mandate was lifted on February 15th, so it defies reason that California students have to wait an additional month to remove their masks if they choose.”
During the peak of the omicron surge in January, California was averaging more than 110,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, around 270 per 100,000 people. That has dropped to an average of fewer than 10,000 a day over the past week, or 23 per 100,000 people.
Hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen steeply, finally dropping below the levels of the summer 2021 delta surge. Still, around 4,440 in the state are hospitalized with the virus, and over the past week an average of 160 Californians with COVID-19 have died each day.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.