Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today (Dec. 13) that people will have to start wearing masks indoors in order to contain the mild Omicron variant, which produces either cold-like symptoms or no symptoms whatsoever.
Newsom’s order will go into effect on Wednesday and last until Jan. 15. California lifted its statewide mask mandate on June 15 for people who were vaccinated, a date Newsom heralded as the state’s grand reopening.
“We know that there’s going to be people who don’t necessarily agree with this, who are tired, who aren’t going to mask,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said. “We hope that those are few and far between, that most people see the purpose of doing this over the next month as something to protect them and their communities during a very tough time.”
Newsom has issued many other coronavirus mandates, including requiring state employees, health care workers and, soon, public school students and teachers to be vaccinated. The governor can do this because California is still operating under an emergency declaration Newsom issued at the beginning of the pandemic. That emergency declaration will remain in place until either Newsom lifts it or the state Legislature votes to end it.
Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who ran against Newsom for governor during an unsuccessful recall election earlier this year, has routinely tried and failed to get the Democratic-dominated Legislature to end the state’s emergency declaration.
“I think that people are incredibly frustrated with this notion that these choices should be made by one person rather than in the way that our country and state are supposed to work which is all of us together having a say and having the freedom to make choices for ourselves,” Kiley said. “Newsom is taking actions that go far beyond what any other governor or any other state has done.”
California joins other states with similar indoor mask mandates, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, Hawaii and New York. But other Democratic governors have resisted new restrictions, including Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado who told Colorado Public Radio last week that “The emergency is over” and “public health (officials) don’t get to tell people what to wear.”
State officials are afraid of a repeat of last winter, when the state averaged more than 100 cases per 100,000 people during a monster winter surge of the virus when nearly 20,000 people died during an eight-week period.
In general, health officials have had a difficult time controlling the virus and all of its variants. More people have died in 2021 than in 2020, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
This year’s surge has come despite the availability of vaccines. Today, more than 70% of California’s residents who are eligible have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even with the recent increase in cases, the state is averaging a little more than 14 cases per day per 100,000 people.
Even so, Ghaly said hospitals in several counties with low vaccination rates are still struggling with lots of patients, including parts of Southern California in Riverside, San Bernardino, Mono and Inyo counties. Ghaly warned coronavirus hospitalizations often increase in the weeks following a jump in new cases.
“We are proactively putting this tool of universal indoor masking in public settings in place to ensure we get through a time of joy and hope without a darker cloud of concern and despair.” Ghaly said. “Californians have done this before, and we of course believe we can do it again.”
California also is tightening existing testing requirements by ordering unvaccinated people attending indoor events of 1,000 people or more to have a negative test within one or two days, depending on the type of test. The state also is recommending travelers who visit or return to California to get tested within five days of their arrival. — By the Associated Press