LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles County on Friday eased its indoor mask mandate to allow people vaccinated against COVID-19 to remove face coverings indoors at establishments that verify patrons' vaccination status.
The indoor mask mandate is optional for businesses, and there are still some rules.
The new health order, which took effect at 12:01 a.m., puts the onus on businesses to ensure that all customers permitted indoors are either fully vaccinated or can provide proof of a recent negative COVID test. Even after that verification, only fully vaccinated customers will be permitted to remove masks indoors.
Unvaccinated customers must continue wearing masks indoors, even after showing proof of a negative COVID test, unless they are actively eating or drinking.
The same basic rules will apply to workers at indoor establishments.
"This allows, in places where you're verifying that people are either fully vaccinated or they have that negative test result, that then it's a safer environment where those who are fully vaccinated can go ahead and (remove) their masks," county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters Thursday. "While those who are not, even if they've had a negative test result, (must) keep their masks on. That's to stay aligned with the state order."
The change follows rising pressure from two members of the county Board of Supervisors for a loosening of the mask mandate to more closely align with the state, which dropped its indoor mask mandate last week.
"Our collective efforts to vaccinate, boost, mask and follow other safety measures are bringing us closer to pre-surge levels," Ferrer said. "As we move forward and continue to see improvements associated with less transmission, we will implement sensible changes to our mitigation strategies."
Businesses may choose to keep requiring masks indoors, with some owners concerned that verifying vaccination status would be difficult with limited staff.
"That's a lot of burden, especially on small businesses... It's hard for certain business to do that and then to actually enforce it," said Brian Whelan, owner of Foothill Gym in Monrovia. "So, we're going to choose to keep it the way it has been, especially when we know that in a matter of a few weeks, they're more than likely going to change it again."
At Joseph Lamar Hair Salon in Burbank, workers and clients wore masks Thursday, but on Friday they will allow people to be maskless as long as they're vaccinated.
"We're asking our clients to send a photo of their vaccine cards to their stylist so they can go maskless if they choose to," manager Penney Rosado said.
Salons, like many businesses, have suffered economically by the pandemic. There's hope things will return to more normal operations.
"I think people are going to feel a little more comfortable coming into the salon because we do still have some clients that are a little apprehensive about coming into the salon because of the mask mandate," Rosado said.
The county's indoor mask mandate will remain in effect at businesses that do not verify customers' vaccination status. That mandate will not be lifted until:
-- the county's level of COVID transmission falls to the "moderate" level as defined by the CDC and remains there for two weeks; OR
-- COVID vaccines have been available to residents under age 5 for at least eight weeks; AND
-- no emerging COVID "variants of concern" have been identified that could spark another surge in cases.
According to Ferrer, reaching the CDC's "moderate" level of transmission requires the county to have a seven-day cumulative infection rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. As of Wednesday, the county's rate was 133 per 100,000 residents.
The lifting of the indoor mask requirement comes as the region is seeing a drop in COVID hospitalizations.
"Our hospitalizations have continued their decline. Today we're reporting 33% fewer hospitalizations than last Thursday," Ferrer said.
The latest data shows COVID cases falling 90% in the U.S. since mid-January.
Average daily case rates are back down to the level seen in November, just before the omicron variant was confirmed in the U.S. Hospitalizations from COVID are also dropping.
City News Service contributed to this report.