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With Covid Cases Spiking, Could Mask Mandates Return to Restaurants?

As Covid-19 cases continue to climb, local health departments weigh reinstating restrictions.

restaurant workers sanitizing tables Photo: courtesy Adobe Stock

Late last week, Alameda County, Calif.—just across the Bay from San Francisco—announced it would reinstate the indoor mask mandate on Friday, meaning diners would have to don face coverings once again at area restaurants. It’s a move that other local governments have been hesitant to make two-plus years into the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across the country, cases are rising again, signaling that the country is experiencing yet another wave of the virus. Though infections haven’t spiked as dramatically as they did early this year during the winter Omicron surge, the pressure on public health infrastructure has officials on notice.

Alameda County Public Health Department justified reinstating its mandate by writing “Daily reported Covid-19 cases have exceeded the peak of last summer’s Delta wave,” in the release accompanying the new order. And added the data we have right now about Covid-19 isn’t telling the whole story because, “Reported cases are an underestimate of the total due to home testing and unidentified infections.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, Covid cases have been rising since April, reaching the “High Covid Alert” as outlined by the city’s own guidelines about recommended actions based on transmission and hospitalization data. When it crossed that threshold in May, Mayor Eric Adams declined to reinstate the mask mandate as advised by the guidelines.

“We are not at the point of mandating masks,” Adams said last month. “We are not at the point of doing anything other than urging New Yorkers, while you are indoors in large settings, social settings, wear your masks.”

Los Angeles County reinstated its mask mandate before many health departments as it watched the Delta variant surge in 2021. This year, there are more cases than last, but officials have not taken action—yet. If cases continue to rise, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer recently warned that “increased stress on the healthcare system” would trigger another mandate.

Last year, while mask mandates were still in place, a CDC report linked in-person dining to the increased spread of Covid-19 infections. Because, of course, unlike a library or grocery store, the experience of being at a restaurant requires you to remove your mask, thus circumventing the mandate and its benefits in the first place. So even if mask mandates to return to big cities, the efficacy of such orders might have limited preventative effect at restaurants.

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