Please put on a face mask coronavirus sign

In the face of steadily increasing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Los Angeles County will again require people to wear masks in indoor settings beginning Saturday night, regardless of their vaccination status, health officials announced today.

The order was issued only a month after most indoor face-covering requirements and other pandemic restrictions were lifted.  But since then, the virus has staged a dramatic comeback thanks to the fast-spreading Delta variant and the county's still large number of unvaccinated residents. 

"We're not where we need to be for the millions at risk of infection here in Los Angeles County, and waiting to do something would be too late given what we're seeing now," County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said.

Today, the county reported 1,537 new infections, the highest number since early March. It was the seventh consecutive day of new case numbers that topped 1,000. Davis said the rate of virus spread in the county has officially risen from moderate to substantial, with infections five times more likely to occur among unvaccinated residents.

The current seven-day average rate of daily new cases in the county is now at 7.1 cases per 100,000 residents, up from 4.8 just last week.

As a result, Davis said a revised county Health Officer Order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday, requiring people to wear masks in indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status. The county previously only recommended such mask-wearing by vaccinated people in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and protect unvaccinated residents. People who are unvaccinated have always been required to wear masks indoors, although enforcement was left up to individual business owners and was generally on the honor system.

"Wearing a mask when indoors with others reduces the risk of both getting and transmitting the virus," Davis said. "Masking indoors must again become a normal practice by all, regardless of vaccination status so we can stop the trends and level of transmission we are currently seeing."

The masking order will remain in place "until we see improvements" in case transmission, he said.

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Asked if the county might consider re-implementing other health restrictions -- such as capacity limits and physical distancing, Davis said, "Everything is on the table if things continue to get worse."

He said for now, mask wearing is the "easiest thing" for people to do to help limit spread of the virus.

The mandate means customers will again be required to mask up when entering any indoor public establishment, including retail shops, grocery stores, restaurants and workplaces. Davis said indoor dining will remain open, but customers will have to remain masked while they are not eating or drinking.

The number of people hospitalized in Los Angeles County due to the virus jumped to 452 on Thursday, according to state figures, up from 406 on Wednesday, with 96 people in intensive care. The number of people hospitalized has been climbing steadily for the past three weeks, and is now double the number reported when COVID health restrictions were lifted statewide on June 15.

The rolling-average rate of people testing positive for the virus also continued to climb, reaching 3.75% on Thursday, up from 3.7% Wednesday and well above the 0.3% rate from early June, and 1.2% on June 15.

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez said the new mandate should be reminder to residents that the pandemic isn't over.

"This must be a wake-up call for all of Los Angeles," Martinez said. "Now is the time to do right by your family, friends and your community, follow the county's mask mandate and get the vaccine."

Davis insisted again that COVID vaccines provide strong protection against the virus and the "Delta" variant, but unvaccinated residents are at significantly higher risk.

There are still nearly 4 million county residents who are unvaccinated.

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