LOS ANGELES — For all the strong reactions the Los Angeles County mask mandate has provoked, it’s not clear whether the directive is generating the response that would both calm fears and reduce covid risk: more vaccinations.
Last weekend, Los Angeles County once again began requiring everyone, including the vaccinated, to wear a mask in public indoor settings. With covid-19 cases surging over the past month in the Southland — as Southern California is known out here — the measure was clearly intended to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
But the return of the mask mandate stunned and divided residents of this populous and diverse county. Instead of calming business owners, it sparked worries about renewed restrictions on capacity and possible shutdowns. Sheriff Alex Villanueva — last heard grandstanding on the county’s dire homelessness situation — announced he would not “expend our limited resources” enforcing the mandate.
The result is a mass of contradiction — and confusion. In the hyper-liberal city of Los Angeles, vigilance is mostly the order of the day. Some gatherings, including a backyard concert I was supposed to attend by the group Dead Rock West, were canceled just after the rule took effect. But when I went out to dinner in the Belmont Shore neighborhood of Long Beach on Sunday evening, there was hardly a mask in sight. Perhaps nothing summed up the absurdity better than a scene I witnessed at LAX last Saturday night: uniformed airport employees, one masked and the other with his mask at his chin, casually talking to one another, though everyone inside an airport is supposed to be masked at all times.
Almost everyone who has been hospitalized or died of covid-19 is unvaccinated, according to Barbara Ferrer, the head of the L.A. County Board of Health, which ordered everyone to mask back up. This mirrors national trends of covid cases amid the surge driven by the delta variant. The relatively few breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are mostly mild.
In Los Angeles County, 62 percent of residents over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated. The crowd that’s fueling the most recent pandemic wave is the other 38 percent — those who are unprotected. County health officials, while well-intentioned in seeking to contain the covid spread, are effectively punishing the people who did the right thing — that is, get vaccinated — to protect those who did not. It doesn’t help matters that current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance doesn’t recommend masks indoors for fully vaccinated individuals.
The quandary here doesn’t surprise me. As someone who covered personal finance for many years, I got a good sense of what does and doesn’t work with people — and the limits of expecting them to compensate for complicated societal and economic issues. Covid, in a way, presents a similar dynamic. Early in the pandemic, I predicted the pressures to reopen the economy and resume a more or less normal life would only grow, regardless of whether the covid threat receded. Humans are social animals, and we rarely believe the worst will happen to us. At the same time, the emotional and practical whiplash of the past 18 months — Are we open? Closed? Masked? Unmasked? — has frayed nerves and left most people on edge.
Simple, clear and consistent guidance is needed. The people who need to be penalized are those who are continuing to put others at risk. Some businesses at least are doing a bit better than the county in making it clear that there are rewards for getting vaccinated. While it doesn’t seem likely now that the government or many employers are going to mandate vaccines, businesses are free to decide whom to serve based on covid-19 protection status.
A number of Los Angeles-area bar owners — a group who knows something about human behavior — is moving to allow only vaccinated people into their establishments. And when banning the unvaccinated, they aren’t relying on the honor system among patrons.
“We believe in science,” Ross O’Carroll, owner and manager of the Lash Social, a downtown Los Angeles bar and performance space, told me about his recent decision to demand all potential customers show proof of vaccination status to gain entry. (He’ll also accept a recent negative covid test.) “We see it as not contributing to the overall spread and putting our industry at risk of another shutdown.” Footsies, another downtown bar, is taking the same tack, and posted on its Instagram account, “Your safety and our safety is our priority as we navigate through this challenging time.”
Other establishments such as gyms and hair salons can do the same. Instead of punishing the people who did it right, give them positive reinforcement, while making it clear to the wrongdoers their actions come with consequences — for themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be able to get on with our lives.