Why California won't lift its mask mandate anytime soon

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state is moving toward a full reopening on June 15, the details were a little fuzzy. (Many of them still are, about two months out from the big day.) One thing he made clear during his press conference announcing the big change: a full reopening doesn't mean we can tear off the masks just yet.

"We don't have any short-term goals as it relates to lifting the mask mandate," Newsom said.

This left some people (including me) a bit confused. Does this mean bars can open at full capacity... but you still have to wear a mask when you're not sipping your martini? And if masks are really still necessary, should we even be meeting friends for happy hour?

But after speaking with a few medical experts, the question in my head changed from "Why keep a mask mandate past June 15?" to "Why not?"

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"Masks have proven to be one of the most low-cost, convenient ways to prevent the spread of a respiratory virus," said Dr. Alok Patel, an ABC7 medical correspondent.

"I understand why there is a push to get the economy back up and going. And I understand why we need people to get their jobs back, get children back to in-person learning and to give people a tangible end goal," he explained. "Wearing a mask does not affect the economy. You can still go out in public, you can keep it on. As we lift these layers of protection, we have to keep some in place that work -- at least for the foreseeable future."

Ripping off the bandage all at once may be an unnecessary risk. Just as California has been easing COVID-19 restrictions in phases, this is another -- very big -- phase. Why not wait and see what happens before lifting another safety measure?

"I look at the COVID clouds looming over the Midwest and increasingly the Northeast, and the rising threats of the variants as potential barriers, but we may still stay unscathed in California if we don't let down our guard," said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease professor at UCSF School of Medicine.

But not every expert agrees with the assessment that there's virtually no cost to maintaining a mask mandate. Dr. Monica Gandhi, also at UCSF, told SFGate she's urging the California Department of Public Health to lift the statewide masking requirement on June 18, a year after it was first issued.

"I do not think it is realistic that we can maintain a mask mandate once everyone in California who wants a vaccine can get it. This is because those who are vaccinated are protected from infection, and because those who are vaccinated protect the nonvaccinated since these vaccines reduce transmission," she said. "There is a difference between a mask mandate (which is a public health measure) and people wanting to wear masks in the future."

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In reality, it may not be an on/off switch for California's mask mandate. Dr. Patel predicts masks may be required in some high-risk situations (like crowded indoor spaces), but not others (roomy ventilated spaces).

"I could see the mask mandate being lifted by fall, but masks still being recommended in certain situations where people may be indoors for long periods of time, or if somebody remains unvaccinated for any particular reason," said Dr. Patel.

When asked if California is considering easing masking restrictions a bit in June, the Department of Public Health said, "When California fully reopens the economy, the Blueprint for a Safer Economy will end. However, common-sense health measures will remain across the state, including an ongoing mask mandate. In addition, testing or vaccination verification requirements will remain in relevant settings."

The department declined to offer a target date for fully lifting masking rules.

VIDEO: CA to keep mask mandate past June 15
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California is on track to reopen soon, which begs the questions, will you continue to wear a mask once the mandate is lifted? Should you? Here's what health experts have to say:



Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said Americans may be wearing masks in some capacity into 2022. Even if that's true, is that a high price to pay?

"If we could fully reopen businesses right now, but you had to wear a mask, would that be OK with you? If we said high schoolers could go back to class tomorrow, but they had to wear masks, would you say yes? I think most people in California would say yes."

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