San Mateo County is loosening face-covering restrictions to align with state guidelines, with fully vaccinated people no longer required to wear masks outside except when attending crowded outdoor events.
Dr. Curtis Chan, deputy health officer with San Mateo County, said the change moves the county away from the mentality of strict government restrictions and toward a new era of common courtesy, community agreements and more relaxed mask scenarios.
“We are not emphasizing health officer orders. We want to emphasize caring. For fully vaccinated people, face coverings are not required, but also social agreement and common courtesy could be taken into consideration,” Chan said.
Under the new requirements announced Tuesday, fully vaccinated people outdoors are only required to wear them when attending crowded outdoor events like live performances, parades, fairs, festivals or sports events. For unvaccinated people, the county requires face coverings outdoors any time physical distancing cannot be maintained, including when attending crowded outdoor events.
As vaccination rates increase in the coming months, Chan encouraged the public to be smart over the next six weeks as vaccinations continue and the state moves toward a June 15 economic reopening. Chan believes there will be a reduced need for mask restrictions in the coming months, and he hopes mask restrictions will be additionally loosened by July 4.
“I would hope that would be around the date when mask social agreements are going to be eased up a little bit,” he said.
Chan said the county made the switch because more people are getting vaccinated, and the vaccine will be readily available. Face coverings will still be required for everyone regardless of vaccination status in indoor settings outside of one’s home, including public transportation. The move allows San Mateo County to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and the California Department of Public Health. The California Department of Health did not define a crowded outdoor event, but Chan interpreted it as large ticketed events with many people moving around in close proximity.
Chan provided scenarios of walking along the sidewalk and passing someone or waiting in line outside for ice cream next to someone, in which case no mask is required for fully vaccinated people. However, putting on a face covering would be common courtesy for the next few weeks as the county gets its vaccination numbers up. In addition, putting on a mask in small group settings outside could help de-stress people who are unvaccinated, have medical risk factors or disabilities.
“We want you to use your common sense. We are not trying to overly prescribe what needs to be done,” Chan said.
He reminded people that even though a youth sporting event might not be considered a crowded outdoor event, California still has mask requirements for people watching the event at all times. He supported vaccinated people wearing masks around workers at close contact who would be stressed if people approach without a mask.
“Until we get everyone vaccinated, people will continue to feel that stress,” Chan said.
Unvaccinated people will still have much of the same requirements, which includes wearing coverings around people. However, Chan did not want unvaccinated people and workers uncomfortable outdoors with summer coming around. Under the new guidelines, an unvaccinated person could take off their mask outdoors when working and alone, but if they approach someone to talk, they would then be required to put on a mask.
“I think they are common-sense rules that most of society agree upon and keep us safe,” Chan said.
Vaccinations have played a critical role in loosening mask restrictions and will continue to in the weeks and months ahead. Vaccinations are very effective in preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, and a person is less likely to have viral concentrations in their nose and when they cough and shout. Vaccinated people are also less likely to have symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission.
The county in the future will also consider further restrictions if new variants appear in the county and state. Chan said COVID-19 would be endemic, much like different strains of influenza. Even with better surveillance of possible mutations, he stressed the need to be vigilant about different COVID-19 variants.
“If a variant appears, we might increase restrictions again, and we might need to vaccinate against it,” Chan said.
While the county will still need to be wary of any variants, Chan is optimistic the summer will be different than last year due to the vaccination pace.
“We will be able to connect with our friends and family a lot more,” Chan said.
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