Santa Clara County lifted its indoor mask mandate today, the last county in the Bay Area to do so following the region's winter surge in COVID-19 cases.
County public health officials said Tuesday they expected to meet the third and final benchmark required to lift local masking rules, as the county's seven-day average of new cases has held below 550 for six consecutive days.
Last month, Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said the county would lift its masking order once the seven-day average fell below 550 new cases for seven consecutive days, 80 percent of all residents had completed their initial vaccination series and local COVID-19 hospitalizations remained "low and stable," in her estimation.
Nearly 85 percent of all county residents have been vaccinated, according to county data, and 244 people are currently hospitalized with COVID, down from the 262 who were hospitalized Feb. 24 when Cody announced the mask mandate could be lifted as soon as March 2.
Cody noted at a March 1 morning briefing that while it is "good news" that local conditions will allow the county to lift its mask requirements, the virus has not gone away completely.
“It's not completely safe ... we still have community transmission of COVID, but we've reached a level where it feels safe enough to make the transition from requirement to strong recommendation,” she said.
The county is lifting mask requirements in most settings for vaccinated people, but also for unvaccinated people for the first time since the pandemic began.
The changes align the county with the state's announcement Monday that it will no longer require unvaccinated residents to wear a mask inside public spaces like retail stores, restaurants and gyms.
The state lifted its mask mandate Feb. 16, as did 10 of the 11 counties in the greater Bay Area.
Santa Clara was one of just a few counties across the state to retain its indoor masking rules in an effort to further reduce the virus' spread.
The county and state still recommend that residents wear a mask indoors, if they want to do so, to reduce the virus' spread. Cody also said the county will support individual businesses if they choose to continue requiring masks indoors.
“The risk in our county is decreasing -- that is good news,” she said. “But there are still many who are at risk, long COVID is still unknown. It still makes sense to prevent infection however we can.”
Masks will still be required regardless of vaccination status under state and federal rules in health care facilities, homeless shelters, prisons, long-term care facilities and on public transit.
Santa Clara County Superior Court officials said masks will still be required indoors at all county courthouses, despite the lifting of the county mandate.
after the county's new policy goes into effect Wednesday.
“Like many of us in Santa Clara County, our court is encouraged by the data from our public health officials showing declining case rates and hospitalizations county-wide,” Presiding Judge Theodore C. Zayner said in a statement. “However, it remains imperative that our court continues to be vigilant in our efforts to protect the health and safety of all who enter our courthouses.”
Cody said Santa Clara County will also align its school masking policies with the state March 12, when statewide requirements for K-12 students will end.
The county has not had its own mask requirements specifically for schools since 2020, opting instead to follow the state's guidelines.
Cody did not give concrete details about if and when a blanket requirement to use masks indoors could return, but said that another surge in COVID cases should be expected at some point in the future.
“We probably will have another peak,” she said. “The contours of that peak are not known to us. We don't know what the variant will be, we don't know how the variant will behave. So we always have to be ready.”