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San Benito to join Bay Area counties in lifting indoor mask mandate

Restrictions will be eliminated starting Feb. 16

Nearly every county in the greater Bay Area will lift their indoor mask mandates next week, aligning them with the state’s plans to lift its mask requirements. 

San Benito will join Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Solano counties and the city of Berkeley in dropping their requirements to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status, on Feb. 16. 

Masks will still be required indoors for unvaccinated people ages 2 and up, as well as in health care facilities, homeless shelters and on public transit. 

Masks are also required in K-12 schools, but state officials have indicated they are reconsidering school masking requirements and could make changes in the coming weeks. 

State public health officials said Monday that the statewide mask mandate, which has been in effect since Dec. 15, would expire as the state’s Covid-19 case and hospitalization numbers have plummeted from the record highs of the omicron variant surge. 

“As it still remains unclear as to whether future variants could be more severe and lethal than the current Omicron, these guidelines will be subject to review and adjustment based on future incidence of infection,” stated Dr. George Gellert, San Benito County Health Officer. “As there remains virus transmission occurring in the community, and as we are seeing a new subvariant in the U.S., it is still critical for San Benito County residents to get vaccinated and boosted.”

Officials in many of the counties argued that Covid’s spread has also waned significantly across the region and that relaxing mask requirements is part of a shift toward a “new normal” of living with the virus rather than attempting to snuff out its spread completely.

“We are able to take this next major step of removing the universal indoor mask requirement because we have laid a strong foundation in good public health protections—especially vaccines and boosters—and know we can reduce severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli said.

The lone holdout among Bay Area counties is Santa Clara, with county health officials arguing lifting local indoor mask requirements would present an unnecessary risk to residents who are vulnerable to the virus. 

Santa Clara County public health officials expect to lift most indoor mask requirements for vaccinated residents “in a matter of weeks,” once the county’s seven-day average of new cases per day falls below 500 for at least one week and Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody deems hospitalizations in the county to be “low and stable.”

As of Tuesday, the county was confirming an average of 1,922 new cases per day over the prior seven days.

“Universal indoor masking is critical to protect our community, especially community members who are older or immunocompromised,” Cody said in a statement. “Continuing to mask indoors should also allow our case rates to continue to drop quickly.”

Indoor mask requirements for all residents have been in place for much of the Bay Area since August, when health officials in seven counties and the city of Berkeley argued masking indoors would be necessary due to the highly contagious delta variant, which was starting to become the region’s dominant strain. 

Masking rules remained in place across most of the region as the delta surge faded and the winter surge of cases tied to the omicron variant began. 

In October, the seven counties and Berkeley issued criteria to lift their respective indoor mask requirements, including 80% of each county’s population completing their initial vaccine series and remaining in the lowest tier of viral transmission as determined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least three weeks.

Ultimately, none of the counties or the city of Berkeley met their established thresholds. 

On Wednesday, San Francisco health officials argued that those criteria were outdated, and meeting them would not be necessary for the city to safely align itself with the state’s indoor masking rules.

“We are able to take this next major step of removing the universal indoor mask requirement because we have laid a strong foundation in good public health protections and know we can prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip said. 

Health officials in all 11 of the greater Bay Area’s counties urged residents to get vaccinated against the virus as well as a booster jab when eligible. 

Individual businesses and events will also be encouraged to require the use of a mask indoors if they consider it necessary, and residents are advised to wear a well-fitting N95 mask when a face covering is required. 

“While wearing a mask indoors is no longer mandatory for people who are vaccinated, it remains a smart and simple way to protect yourself and the people around you,” Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said. 

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