In alignment with the State, the Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma, and the City of Berkeley will lift universal mask requirements for most indoor public settings beginning Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Unvaccinated individuals over age 2 will continue to be required to wear masks in all indoor public settings. Businesses, venue operators and hosts may determine their own paths forward to protect staff and patrons and may choose to require all patrons to wear masks.
The change aligns with the California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) decision to let expire the statewide indoor mask requirement, which was instated on Dec. 15 during the latest COVID-19 surge. Indoor masking is still required by the State for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in public transportation, health care settings, congregate settings like correctional facilities and homeless shelters, long-term care facilities, and in K-12 schools and childcare settings.
Bay Area health officers 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. Continuing to mask in indoor public settings, especially crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, remains the safest choice for an individual and protects those who are medically vulnerable or are not able to get vaccinated, like our youngest children. As evidence continues to show, vaccinations and boosters remain the best defense against the virus.
The highly contagious Omicron variant brought on a new stage of the pandemic with a high number of new infections, but significantly fewer cases of life-threatening illnesses, especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted. While relaxing indoor masking requirements is part of a population-level shift toward a “new normal” of living with the disease, the Health Officers recognize that essential workers and communities of color continue to be highly impacted by COVID-19 and will need additional support to limit widening health disparities. Changes to health orders and recommendations may be updated as Health Officers follow the science and the data to evaluate whether additional protective measures may be needed as the virus evolves and if future surges occur.
People should continue to choose layered prevention strategies, such as wearing well-fitted masks (N95 or double layer cloth over surgical are best); staying home and testing when symptomatic; testing before gatherings; and improving indoor ventilation in situations where these strategies can add protection for themselves and others. Staying “up to date” on vaccinations, meaning primary series and boosters when eligible, remains the most important way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
By aligning with the state masking rules, the participating Bay Area counties will not need to meet previously established criteria for lifting local masking orders, which were devised at a different point in the pandemic.
SF’s cases declining
After reaching a high on Jan. 9 of 2,258 new cases per day, SF’s case rates have rapidly declined to a 7-day average of 552 on Feb. 1 and continue to drop. Meanwhile, hospitalizations, a lagging indicator of disease, have begun to drop and never exceeded SF's capacity during this latest surge because of SF's overall high rates of vaccinations (84%) and boosters (64%). SF’s universal mask mandate has been in place since Aug. 2 when cases began climbing from the Delta variant. A combination of preventative strategies, which included mask use, vaccination, boosters and testing, along with the community’s cooperation helped get the Bay Area through this last surge together as a stronger regional community.
“Omicron was an immense stress test on our system, and although it presented many difficulties because of the sheer number of people who became infected, we made it through with schools and businesses open and without overwhelming our hospitals because we have built up strong defenses against the virus with our high vaccination and booster rates,” said San Francisco’s Health Officer, Dr. Susan Philip. “We are able to take this next major step of removing the universal indoor mask requirement because we have laid a strong foundation in good public health protections and know we can prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths. We do want people to continue to be cautious and layer their defenses through masking and other measures when the situation requires. And we are continuing to prioritize our City’s efforts to reduce the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable people and communities. Being vaccinated and boosted remains the best protection against future variants of the virus.”
Other SF COVID-19 requirements
SF will continue to require proof of vaccinations or a negative test to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and other settings where food and drink is consumed, or elevated breathing occurs. A patron who is unvaccinated may show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test instead, and entry without proof of vaccination is no longer limited to those with a medical or religious exemption, per a new change in SF's health order. Additionally, patrons attending large indoor events are required to show proof of being “up to date” on vaccinations (including the primary series and a booster, if eligible) or have a recent negative test. The change updates the definition of “mega event” from 500 to 1,000 in alignment with the State. A negative test could be a PCR-lab test within two days of attendance of the event, or one-day for a verified antigen test.
Masking remains for schools and childcare
CDPH continues to require masking in K-12 school settings but has indicated adjustments to the state’s policies will be shared in the coming weeks. In the meantime, there is work to be done in closing the remaining gaps in vaccinations and boosters among children with a particular focus on equity gaps within the most highly impacted communities.
For early education programs, such as preschool and childcare settings, CDPH continues to require masking for children older than age two. Vaccinations for children under 5 are currently undergoing federal review. Workplaces will continue to follow the COVID-19 prevention standards set by CalOSHA.
Supporting the choice to mask
Some people may understandably feel anxious about these changes to masking requirements. People can continue to choose to wear face coverings around others whether it’s mandated or not and should respect people’s choices around their health. Community members who are vaccinated and choose not to mask should respect the choices of those who continue to mask. Officials ask residents and visitors to be kind and respectful as people evaluate their risks and make choices to protect themselves and those around them.
Note: San Benito County has confirmed it will also join the Bay Area region lifting mask requirements for a total of 12 jurisdictions.