Bay Area health officials on Thursday announced new criteria for when local counties will lift their orders requiring people to wear face masks indoors.
It will take several weeks at least for Berkeley to reach that point, because doing so will require lower rates of COVID-19 transmission and higher vaccination levels across all of Alameda County.
In a joint announcement Thursday morning, public health leaders from Berkeley and eight Bay Area counties credited the mask requirements they reinstated in early August, as well as vaccines, with helping to tamp down a summer COVID-19 surge driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.
“But with regional data showing that the surge is now receding, and with the Bay Area one of the most vaccinated regions in the country,” today’s joint health department statement read, “the health officers agree it is time to plan for a transition.”
The new rules allow jurisdictions to end face covering requirements when they meet all of these three criteria:
- Low rates of COVID-19 transmission, defined as staying in at least the yellow or “moderate” tier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community transmission metrics for at least three weeks.
- COVID hospitalization levels that are “low and stable, in the judgment of the health officer.”
- 80% of the jurisdiction’s total population is fully vaccinated, or eight weeks have passed since federal regulators have granted an emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine for children 5-11 years old.
Berkeley leaders said at a virtual town hall meeting on Monday that the city’s rates of new COVID-19 cases and positive tests have fallen significantly in recent weeks. City data shows case and test positivity rates appear to be below the CDC’s “moderate” tier thresholds and 101,686 residents are fully vaccinated, more than 80% of Berkeley’s total population.
But as of Thursday, Alameda County was classified in the CDC’s orange tier, indicating “substantial” spread of COVID-19; no Bay Area counties have reached the yellow tier. Alameda County data also shows just over 1.1 million residents are fully vaccinated, about two-thirds of the total population of 1.7 million.
While Berkeley has its own health department and has sometimes moved independently from Alameda County during the pandemic, in this case city spokesperson Matthai Chakko said the decision to lift mask requirements will be based on data from the county as a whole.
“We know people constantly come in and out of our small city and mix in a variety of uncontrolled indoor environments, so case rates can’t be looked at in isolation,” Chakko wrote in an email.
Other Berkeley-specific COVID-19 restrictions, like the city’s vaccination requirements for restaurant patrons and gym goers, will remain in place.
“It’s no accident that we’ve seen a slowing spread of COVID-19 in Berkeley and the rest of the region,” Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said in a statement Thursday. “Even with the still new and not fully understood virus, we see how public health tools protect us.”
Businesses and other entities that want to keep mask requirements in place could do so even if local mandates end, and unvaccinated people would still be expected to wear face coverings. State and federal requirements for face coverings would remain in place as well, meaning everyone would need to mask up in health care settings or on public transportation.
Pfizer on Thursday asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize its vaccine for children between 5 and 11, and an advisory committee from the agency will discuss the request at a meeting on Oct. 26. The New York Times reported a decision is expected in November.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described how quickly Berkeley could lift its face covering requirement. That decision will be based on whether Alameda County as a whole, not Berkeley alone, meets the criteria health officials laid out on Thursday.