SAN JOSE, Calif. - Get ready to take your mask off indoors next week if you live in the Bay Area and beyond; that is, unless you live in Santa Clara County.
On Wednesday, health officers from the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma, San Benito and the city of Berkeley announced they will lift mask requirements for vaccinated people in most indoor public settings on Feb. 16, following what the state of California is doing.
That said, the joint statement from most of the Bay Area health officers said they continue to strongly recommend masks be used as an effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus especially when case rates are high or when additional personal protection is needed.
Despite the relaxed rules, masks will still be required on public transit, in congregate living facilities, at work and K-12 schools. Santa Cruz County specifically also added that masks will have to be worn in K-12 public schools, too.
One county will not be relaxing the rules.
Santa Clara County said it will keep the stricter mask regulations in place, at least for now.
At a news conference on Wednesday morning, Health Director Dr. Sara Cody said that the mandate will not be lifted on Feb. 15 because the community transmission rate of omicron is still too high. That means everyone has to continue to wear a mask indoors until the vaccination metrics are met, including a lower hospitalization rate and case rates are manageable.
She did not put a date on when that would end, though she did indicate that it might come sometime in March when the county's seven-average if new cases are about 550 a day. Currently, it's 1,900 cases a day. Cody also did not state how many people are currently hospitalized in Santa Clara County because of COVID.
"Currently we are emerging from the omicron surge and it's been about a month since the peak and our cases and our case rates are 40 percent of what they were," Cody said. " But we still have very high levels of community transmission, still higher than at any other point in the pandemic pre omicron. And so the risk of being exposed to someone with COVID in our community is still high."
She acknowledged that many people are wary of masking, while others are anxious about the consequences of being near people who are unmasked.
"But ultimately our job is to follow the science, to keep our community as safe as possible and to ensure that we continue to protect the people who are most vulnerable," Cody said. "To do this, we cannot lift the enormous requirement with community transmission as high as it is right now."
Cody said, however, that the metrics adopted in October will be adjusted to match the new omicron context. She also noted that 84% of eligible Santa Clara County residents are vaccinated.
In Southern California, Los Angeles County’s health officials said they also intend to keep theirs in place beyond the state deadline.
"The omicron curve is coming down so fast, it takes time for communities to react," said UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin Hong. "What you're seeing is various communities responding to the same science and same numbers, depending on what their level or risk is."
But even among each county, there still could be a patchwork of varying mask guidelines.
Even though Solano County will relax mask guidelines next week, the cities of Benicia and Vallejo have their own citywide masking mandates and could choose to keep them in place.
And in terms of schools, the easing of California's order does not automatically apply to classrooms, where indoor masking continues to be required for all students and staff.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said an answer on that might come as early as Monday.
The sticking point on that seems to be the vaccination rates of students.
For example, nearly 28% of 5- to 11-year- olds have been vaccinated statewide compared to California's average vaccination rate of 69.5%.