L.A. County businesses, residents react to possible return of mask mandate

Residents of Los Angeles County could be forced to don face masks in stores and other indoor public spaces once again by the end of this month if COVID-19 hospitalization rates continue accelerating at current pace, public health officials warned this week.

A universal indoor mask mandate is not for certain, and the timetable for that could change, depending on actual hospitalization numbers. Still, some business leaders, health professionals and members of the public are already reacting to the potential return to a mask mandate.

The number of COVID-positive patients in hospitals in L.A. County surpassed 1,000 on Friday, July 8, according to state figures. Friday’s test-positivity rate was 15.7%, according to the county Department of Public Health.

The county is currently at the “medium” virus activity level, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will reach the “high” category if the seven-day average of new COVID-related hospital admissions reaches 10 per 100,000 residents.

As of Thursday, the county’s hospital admission rate was 8.4 per 100,000 residents, putting it in the “medium” virus activity level. But at its current pace, the county could reach the “high” category by next week, county Public Health Official Barbara Ferrer said Thursday. The estimate is only a projection that could change dramatically based on admission numbers in the coming days.

If the county does enter the “high” category and remains there for two weeks, the county would reimpose a universal indoor masking mandate. In other words, a mask-wearing mandate could return as soon as July 29.

Some business owners and leaders called such a mandate “needless.”

“Our economy was hit hard enough during the pandemic and, just when businesses were beginning to recover, were hit with sky-high inflation and record energy costs,” said Sarah Wiltfong, director of advocacy and policy for the Los Angeles County Business Federation.

“The last thing the business community needs are more mandates that can discourage business and place them at a competitive disadvantage to neighboring communities,” she continued.

Jennifer Febre, owner of MacLeod Ale Brewing Co. in Van Nuys, is tentatively planning on opening her second restaurant, MacLeod on York, in Highland Park, the last week of July — potentially the same week that the county could reimpose an indoor masking mandate.

“I’m really sad that we might be opening our doors with masks on,” Febre said.

While Febre said she intends to adhere to county rules, albeit grudgingly, she questioned whether mask mandates actually help significantly reduce COVID-19 case numbers. She fears another mandate would only discourage customers from leaving their home — or push them to go where a mandate isn’t enforced.

“Whatever we’re asked to do, we will do,” she said. “But I just strongly feel these mandates are more show than good. I wish it was as simple as having a mask mandate and then we can control COVID. But … it just doesn’t make a difference. It just hurts the employees and the businesses.”

Some local residents say they wouldn’t be bothered by a possible mandate, however.

“I would actually welcome it because I wish more people would wear masks,” said Cynthia Perez of Granada Hills.

The 52-year-old said she still usually masks up when she goes to stores because, while the county is already reporting an increase in coronavirus cases, she believes the numbers are an undercount since many people are testing positive using home tests — and are not reporting their results to public health agencies.

At the same time, one customer at a Panera Bread in Granada Hills said that while he’d probably adhere to the rules should the county reimpose a mask mandate, he would be more inclined to question its effectiveness.

“I guess I would follow it, but I’d ask my medical professional and maybe I’d ask around a little bit more,” said Andrew, who would only give his first name.

Dr. Thomas Yadegar, medical director of the intensive care unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, said he recognizes the need to regain a sense of normalcy while also taking precautions to protect oneself and loved ones. His hope, he said, is that if the county reimposes a mask mandate, it would be relatively short-lived — and be lifted when cases or hospitalization rates drop again.

To those tired of dealing with the coronavirus after two-and-a-half years, Yadegar said he understands but that it’s still important to take measures in the best interest of the public.

“No one has more COVID fatigue than us (frontline workers),” Yadegar said about himself and his colleagues. “I cannot wait for the day when we don’t have to talk about COVID or talk about masks. But unfortunately, that day hasn’t come yet. What we all need to understand is that to live together as a society, we have to care for not just ourselves, but we have to care for everyone.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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