Coronavirus mask generic

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Indoor masking requirements in the San Francisco Bay Area will be eased for certain indoor public settings, including offices, gyms, college classrooms and churches, once counties reach low COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates and at least 80% of the total population is fully vaccinated, officials announced Thursday.

The Bay Area, with among the highest vaccination rates and lowest case rates in the nation, has been cautious throughout the pandemic, and counties in the region issued the nation's first stay-home order in March 2020.

After lifting some restrictions in the spring, public health officials in San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo reinstated an indoor mask mandate in August as COVID-19 infections surged because of the highly contagious delta variant.

Cases have declined since then in the Bay Area, and officials have now agreed to start lifting mask mandates in some public spaces. The 80% vaccination rate includes the entire population, not just those 12 and older who are eligible for the shots. It will be up to each county to determine its own mask rules.

Such a change is likely weeks away in most areas, although San Francisco will begin easing the rules next week.

“Indoor masking has helped to lower case counts, hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths, so we don’t want to remove this important layer of COVID prevention too hastily,” said Santa Clara Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.

In Contra Costa County, where 71% of the entire population is vaccinated, officials said it could be a while before people can actually start taking their masks off, given that vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 have yet to be approved.

“I want to make it very clear, we are not there yet and based on the criteria it will probably take a few more weeks before we can enter a store or restaurant without a mask," Contra Costa County Supervisor Diane Burgis said.

In San Francisco, where 75% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, patrons of a wide array of businesses are already required to show proof of full vaccination, including offices, gyms and college classrooms. Mayor London Breed's office said Thursday that mask requirements will be eased Oct. 15 for those and other settings with fewer than 100 people, as long as everyone can prove they are vaccinated, the place is well ventilated and no children under 12 are present.

Patrons at San Francisco bars and restaurants must still wear a mask inside, regardless of vaccination status, unless they are eating or drinking, Breed said. The mayor last month was seen on video mask-less at a nightclub, in violation of the rules, and later told reporters that she didn't think it was reasonable to ask patrons to wear masks except when eating or drinking.

“Make sure you are vaccinated because of the requirements but don’t feel as though you have to be micromanaged about mask wearing. We don’t need the fun police to come in and tell us what we should or shouldn’t be doing," she later said.

Indoor masking will also continue to be required at retail stores and other shared indoor places such as common areas like elevators, lobbies and restrooms, where people from different workplace settings could interact.

“This is an important step forward for San Francisco, particularly for our downtown, because when I talk to office workers and business leaders one of the things I continue to hear is that they’re anxious to get back to a more normal routine at work where they can interact with their colleagues," Breed said in a statement.

State and federal rules still require masks to be worn on public transportation, in health care facilities, in adult and senior care facilities and at K-12 schools.

In Los Angeles County, the state's most populous, there are no immediate plans to adopt the San Francisco Bay Area counties’ criteria for eliminating indoor masking mandates, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s Department of Public Health, adding that Northern California counties have much higher vaccination rates overall and different demographics.

Ferrer said the county has been clear all along that resuming a pre-pandemic lifestyle will depend on lower community transmission rates of the virus.

“I think there’s no disagreement there but at this point, you know, we’re still in the middle of substantial transmission, we have a lot of work to do to get to lower transmission rates, and we need to really concentrate on getting more people vaccinated,” she said Thursday at a news briefing.

Steve Pyka, owner of Asta Yoga in San Francisco, said it was about time vaccinated people were allowed to exercise without masks.

Pyka said his students must register online and upload their proof of vaccination, his studio is well ventilated and there is plenty of room for people to keep their distance.

“They’re not moving and they’re not opening their mouth like in a restaurant or a bar where they could have well over 100 people who do the theater of coming in with their mask on and take it off right away and are talking and sharing drinks and food,” he said.

Such strict mandates especially don't make sense with such high vaccination rates in San Francisco, he said.

“Instead of enjoying the fact that we live in this place where everybody’s kind of doing their part we’re still living with policies that don’t seem to match the reality,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Janie Har contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that 75% of San Francisco's entire population is vaccinated, not 75% of those over 12.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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