• Kevin Hessel

Marin again misses yellow tier as mask rules set to be relaxed

Update: Marin once again missed the yellow tier and must remain in the orange tier until at least May 18, while California has now updated its outdoor face-covering guidelines for fully vaccinated people to align with the CDC recommendations, though Marin has not.


May 3 — As Marin once again anticipates moving this week to the less-restrictive yellow pandemic reopening tier, fully vaccinated people may soon be able to shed their masks in most outdoor settings and finally take a guilt-free vacation.


California and Marin last week separately announced they would update their COVID-19 public-health orders on face coverings and travel to reflect relaxed recommendations issued April 27 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


“If you’re fully vaccinated, outdoors and not in a large crowd, you do not need to wear a mask,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Twitter that day. Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public-health officer, said Marin would change its rules to reflect California’s.


However, as of The Ark’s press time May 3, neither California nor Marin had updated their official public-health orders, meaning outdoor masking is, at least technically, still required.


In practicality, the CDC’s revised outdoor-masking guidance was reported widely last week, and with health officials embracing the change, Marin and Tiburon Peninsula law-enforcement officials have stated they won’t be seeking proof of vaccination from those without masks outdoors.


Despite grabbing headlines, much of the CDC advice was already in effect though in Marin and California, regardless of vaccination status: People walking, running, hiking or biking alone or with a household member don’t need to wear a face covering outdoors, and masks aren’t needed while actively eating and drinking in small groups at outdoor restaurants.


Under the new rules for the fully vaccinated, masking requirements are eliminated in smaller settings, even when physical distancing of at least 6 feet can’t be maintained. While the CDC still cautions against vaccinated people shedding masks in medium-sized groups, the agency recommends, and public-health orders likely will require, masks in larger crowded settings and venues.


Willis has stressed that the new rules will apply only to the fully vaccinated, meaning two weeks have passed since those people have completed their vaccine series — two doses for the Pfizer and Moderna shots, one for Johnson & Johnson.


Although more than 82 percent of Marin adults have received at least one vaccine dose and some 62 percent have completed their full vaccine series, only about 44 percent of all residents are fully immunized, according to county statistics. Willis has said he’s seeking 90-percent immunization for effective herd immunity to stop chains of transmission and protect vulnerable populations that can’t be vaccinated.


Face-covering guidance for the unvaccinated is effectively unchanged. Coverings are still required in any public outdoor setting in which physical distancing from those outside your household can’t be maintained. In small outdoor gatherings with family and friends, the unvaccinated can remove their masks only if everyone else is vaccinated.


In every other public outdoor or indoor setting, face coverings are still required for everyone.


The new guidance also allows for the fully vaccinated to resume all domestic and international travel, without the need to test beforehand — unless required by the destination — nor to test again and self-quarantine upon return.


Unvaccinated people should still refrain from all nonessential travel outside the Bay Area and get tested before and after travel.


Everyone should still get tested and self-quarantine if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, as the vaccine is not 100-percent effective. As of April 20, the CDC reported some 7,175 breakthrough cases among the 87 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated, a rate of about 8 per 100,000.


The CDC’s revised recommendation was cautious, frequently noting there remains a low potential risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, outdoors.


A systematic review of peer-reviewed studies published in February in the Oxford University Press’ Journal of Infectious Diseases concluded the evidence supports beliefs that outdoor-transmission risk is significantly lower than indoors, is often fueled by prolonged exposure to aerosols from talking, shouting or singing rather than brief and casual encounters, but that there are still gaps in understanding.


The caution created a degree of complexity: It’s the first time since the start of the pandemic that different groups have been given different rules in uncontrolled settings like public streets, trails and parks, raising questions about the practical application of the health order, public adherence and enforcement.


Just days before the CDC announcement, Willis had said it was “premature” to change masking rules, though he told the Marin Independent Journal that “the reality is if we’re picking our battles, covering your face when you’re indoors is far more important to have 100-percent vigilance around than the minor risk associated with chance encounters in open spaces.”


Since then, he’s reiterated his concerns about the broader behavioral impression the new guidelines might leave.


“If this leads to a general sense that facial covering is no longer important, we’re in trouble,” he told the IJ. “It’s still one of the most important tools available to us.”


Willis continues to express concern about the potential spread of variants and that lax masking and distancing while engaging in nonessential travel — as variants continue to spread in the eastern U.S. and overseas — are a potential recipe for a fourth surge.


County officials did not respond to requests for comment about whether guidelines have been or will be issued to law-enforcement agencies for outdoor mask compliance.


Tiburon and Belvedere police, for instance, have been lax about citations, instead seeking an educational approach to remind people to wear face coverings while handing out masks for free to those who may not be carrying one.


Under the new health orders, it will be less clear to officers — and to vulnerable members of the public — whether those nearby without masks outdoors are vaccinated or are flouting the law.


Respective Tiburon and Belvedere police chiefs Ryan Monaghan and Jason Wu, as well as Marin sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Brenton Schneider, each said they wouldn’t require proof of vaccination for those seen maskless outdoors, as their jurisdictions have had high mask-compliance and successful education efforts with minimal complaints.


“We will continue to monitor the situation and adjust as necessary to meet the interests of our community as a whole and Marin County Public Health,” Monaghan said, echoing similar comments by Wu.


Willis has also expressed concern about nonessential travel among the unvaccinated, pointing to spring-break travelers as the likely reason Marin on April 20 did not move from orange tier-3 status to yellow tier-4 status under the state’s four-tier, color-coded blueprint for reopening the economy.


Marin had earned its first week of credit toward the yellow tier under the state’s weekly assessment of April 12, when the county’s seven-day adjusted new-case rate was 1.7 per 100,000 residents, where fewer than two per 100,000 qualifies. But for the April 19 assessment, seven-day-average new cases rose to 2.6 per 100,000 residents, putting Marin squarely back in the orange tier when assignments were announced the next day.


Willis said the case-rate spike aligned with testing that took place after residents returned from travel during spring break, which ran April 3-11.


Because a county must qualify for the next tier for two weeks before it can advance, the spike also meant Marin had to start over and couldn’t enter the yellow tier until May 4 at the earliest.


However, as of the April 26 assessment, Marin was back on track, re-earning its first week of credit toward moving to the yellow tier, with a seven-day adjusted average of 1.5 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. Its test-positivity rate was 0.5 percent, where less than 2 percent is required, and its test-positivity rate among its highest-risk populations was 0.6 percent, where less than 2.2 percent qualifies for the yellow tier.


In his April 27 report to the county Board of Supervisors, Willis said he expects the figures to hold and for the county to enter the yellow tier this week; the state’s weekly Monday assessment and Tuesday tier assignment took place after The Ark’s press deadline.


In the yellow tier, Marin bars without food would be able to reopen indoors for the first time in more than a year, at 25-percent capacity or 100 total people, or at 37.5-percent capacity with proof of a negative test or full vaccination.


For restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, family-entertainment centers, cardrooms and breweries, wineries and distilleries that don’t serve food, indoor capacity would either remain at or increase to 50-percent capacity — but individual businesses could increase capacity to 75 percent if they require all patrons prove they’re either fully vaccinated or have had a recent negative test result.


Live-event capacity would increase to 67 percent outdoors. Indoors, maximum capacity would be 25 percent at small venues and remain 10 percent at large venues, though both would be able to increase to 35 percent if the venue requires proof of a negative test result or full vaccination.


Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he hopes to allow all sectors to reopen without capacity restrictions by June 15, though masking and distancing requirements would remain in place, with venue-specific requirements for proof of negative tests or vaccination. President Joe Biden has said he hopes all willing Americans are fully vaccinated by July 4, to celebrate Independence Day.


Reach Executive Editor Kevin Hessel at 415-435-2652, on Twitter at @thearknewspaper and on Facebook at fb.me/thearknewspaper.

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