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Plan for lifting mask mandate announced by Bay Area health officers

Organizations will be able to set independent masking requirements

Eight Bay Area counties will lift the indoor mask mandates after a series of criteria are met, they announced today.

The counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma and the City of Berkeley reached a consensus on criteria to lift health orders requiring the masks and to allow organizations to set requirements independently.

They will lift the indoor masking requirement in public spaces that are not subject to state and federal masking rules when all the following occur:

• The jurisdiction reaches the moderate (yellow) COVID-19 transmission tier, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and remains there for at least three weeks; and

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the jurisdiction are low and stable, in the judgment of the health officer; and

• 80% of the jurisdiction’s total population is fully vaccinated with two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson (booster doses not considered)

Alternatively, they could also lift the masking mandate if eight weeks have passed since a COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized for emergency use by federal and state authorities for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Currently, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties are all in the CDC's orange, or "substantial," tier, according to the CDC's County Check tool

Most Bay Area health departments issued the masking requirements for their respective jurisdictions on Aug. 3, following a summer surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

But with regional data showing that the surge is now receding, and with the Bay Area one of the most vaccinated regions in the country, Bay Area health officers agreed it is time to plan for a transition.

Lifting a local indoor mask mandate would not prevent businesses, nonprofits, churches or others with public indoor spaces from imposing their own requirements, however. COVID-19 easily spreads through airborne droplets, and face coverings remain highly powerful in preventing its spread, San Mateo County's public health department noted.

"Each jurisdiction will rescind its order when criteria are met in that jurisdiction. The criteria were developed to assist in determining the safest time to lift the indoor masking orders, based on regional scientific and medical consensus. The criteria also provide safety for school children, ages 5-11, who need the added protection of masks in the community to keep case rates low so they can remain in school until they can be vaccinated," the counties' announcement said.

“Contra Costa is coming back strong, thanks to so many of our residents making healthy choices, such as getting vaccinated, or doing the courteous thing and wearing masks in places where the risk of transmission is a little higher,” Diane Burgis, chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, said in the county's statement. "I'm thankful for every resident who has done their part."

Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa’s health officer, said in the statement it is no accident that transmission is slowing in Contra Costa County.

"Public health interventions, including the masking requirement, are working. We believe that health orders, along with vaccination, outreach and education are all adding layers of protection against COVID-19 in our community -- and saving lives,” he said.

Dr. Nicholas Moss, Alameda County health officer, said "Masks and vaccines together have protected residents of Alameda County and the Bay Area during the summer wave. While we expect COVID -19 and flu to circulate this winter, with more people well-protected from severe illness by vaccination we will be able to loosen mask requirements safely."

People who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 must continue to wear masks in businesses and indoor public spaces, in accordance with state health guidance.

The state also requires face coverings for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in health care facilities, public transit and adult and senior care facilities. California’s masking guidelines in K-12 schools would also not be affected by changes to local health orders.

The county health officers have to decide on metrics for reimposing indoor mask requirements should that become necessary, Santa Clara County Health Officer Sara Cody said during a Thursday morning press conference. They are jointly keeping an eye out for emerging new variants and assessing how the vaccines do over time with new variants, she said.

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee is scheduled to consider an application from Pfizer-BioNTech to grant emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds on Oct. 26.

Cody said she has "enormous gratitude" to the public in Santa Clara County and in the region for following the COVID-19 protocols. Because of that, the region has gotten to the point of being able to potentially lift the mask mandates.

The fourth infection surge, which was fueled by the more communicable delta variant, was relatively blunted compared to other parts of the state and the country because residents have largely heeded the five ways to lower transmission: testing, vaccinations, masking, ventilation and social distancing, she said.

The public can track together with health departments how each county is doing by following on the CDC site and looking at the counties' COVID-19 websites.

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