When should California lift its outdoor mask mandate? Health experts are conflicted

SAN FRANCISCO -- As California makes progress in the fight against COVID-19, discussion is growing over if - or when - it might be time to ease the state's outdoor mask mandate.

In Israel, the outdoor mask mandate was lifted over the weekend. And recent columns in Slate and The Atlantic ask if it's time to do the same thing here in the U.S.

So, is it?

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Local Bay Area health experts are conflicted.

"No, no, absolutely not," UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. George Rutherford told ABC7 News of lifting California's outdoor mask mandate.

"At this point in time, when we actually still have a lot of people unvaccinated and still 2,500 cases a day in California, new cases a day in California, it seems to me to be a prudent thing to continue."

Dr. Rutherford said he believed even Israel, where more than 50% of the population is fully vaccinated, may have lifted their mandate prematurely. In California, 32% of people are fully vaccinated.

But Dr. Monica Gandhi, also an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, had a different perspective. She told ABC7 News that she does think it is time to reconsider the outdoor masking mandate, given the low transmission rates for outside activities.

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"There's been a lot of data, especially over the last six months, that shows us that the risk of outdoor transmission is very low," Dr. Gandhi said. "In fact, there was a study from Ireland and a study from China, that looks at about 1 in 1,000 transmission occur outside, as opposed to indoor where we know there's more droplets and more transmission."

"So, in this setting of decreasing cases, and confidence in the vaccine, I think it's time to lift outdoor mask mandates," she added.

ABC7 News medical contributor Dr. Alok Patel said he doesn't believe the mask mandate should be fully lifted, but said he does agree it is time to reevaluate it.

"At least add some transparency, and maybe a goal for people out there to say 'hey, when we reach a certain number, go ahead and take your mask off when you're outdoors,' because there's a little bit of an inconsistency," Dr. Patel said.

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"You can go to an outdoor restaurant, sit on a patio, and potentially be around eight other tables of people who are not wearing masks...but then you can be on the Embarcadero and there is still a requirement to wear a mask."

A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health did not say whether the state is considering lifting the outdoor mask mandate, but suggested it is unlikely any changes will be made until at least the state reopening on June 15.

Dr. Rutherford believes that is for the best.

"I think as we get up into the 60% of people fully vaccinated, we can start to consider it," he said. "But we're going to have to see how it goes over the next couple months with the big push to reopen by June 15th."


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