SANTA MONICA, Calif. — As the sun began to burn through the morning marine layer, patrons of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, were still adjusting to the new normal, which was pretty much the old normal — an order from Los Angeles County to wear masks indoors in businesses and public places.
Most customers dutifully took their masks on and off at the entrance of shops, where signs were posted to remind them of the policy and where, in some cases, complimentary masks were offered. Out-of-state tourists found themselves wearing masks for the first time in months, sometimes annoyed but largely compliant, and one restaurant employee who forgot about the mandate was able to secure a mask by running across the street and asking employees at the Starbucks if they had extras.
“Some people think it’s a punishment,” said Lisa Liu, 38, who said she was fully vaccinated. She was shopping Sunday and was interviewed outside a clothing store called Tazga. “But for me it’s a mask — it’s not a big deal.”
It was not what people expected when the previous mandate was lifted a month ago, but for the most part people in Los Angeles seemed to react with resigned acceptance, sometimes even weary approval, figuring that rising COVID-19 rates made the policy tolerable, if not welcome.
The decision was greeted cautiously by some store and restaurant employees, wary of going back to having to enforce the policies with mask-resistant customers. Still, some seemed prepared to do it.
Anna Ituh, 50, said that her bosses at a local retail store had instructed her to ask customers to put on a mask when they entered, but that she was not allowed to insist that they do so. Still, she described one confrontation in which she asked a customer to leave the store.
“I don’t play games with that,” she said. “I’m that person that will tell them.”
The indoor mask mandate for all people regardless of vaccination status took effect at midnight Saturday, making Los Angeles County the first major county in the United States to reinstate such a requirement. The policy expands beyond the current state standard and the recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; both require masks for unvaccinated people but not for those who are fully vaccinated.
Coronavirus case counts have risen sharply under the less stringent guidelines, especially as the highly transmissible delta variant continues to spread. The county’s daily average of new cases has more than doubled in each of the past two weeks, reaching almost 1,400 as of Saturday, and COVID hospitalizations are up 27%, according to a New York Times database. Still, the numbers are far smaller than during the county’s winter peak, and daily deaths have remained in the single digits.
“When you look back at the last seven days, obviously a whole lot has changed,” Hilda L. Solis, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. Solis called the increase in COVID cases “very disturbing.”
“I am not pleased that we have to go back to using the mask in this matter, but it’s going to save lives,” she said.
However, the Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva, said in a statement Friday that his officers would not be enforcing the mandate.
“Forcing the vaccinated and those who already contracted COVID-19 to wear masks indoors is not backed by science,” Villanueva wrote. The statement said that his department “will not expend our limited resources and instead ask for voluntary compliance.”
Solis said the enforcement responsibility belonged to the county’s Department of Public Health, adding that “the public overall is smart enough to understand what is being said, and how to protect themselves.”
The department can issue a notice of violation or a citation to businesses that fail to comply with the mandate, but a county spokeswoman, Natalie Jimenez, said in an email Saturday that “education and information sharing” would be the department’s primary approaches.
On the glossy Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, a sense of unease hung in the air as stores began to open their doors late Sunday morning. Outside Louis Vuitton, customers were being checked in and handed masks if they were not yet wearing them.
“No one is fighting us on it, which is good, so far; it’s early,” said Jasmine Garcia, the store’s concierge, adding that the shop had increased its security measures. “It’s gotten pretty bad,” she said of how some customers had behaved before the restrictions were first lifted last month.
At a nearby art gallery, which sells paintings by Dalí, Picasso and Matisse, Brynlie Johnston, a research assistant, said she felt resentful that she and other staff members had to enforce the mandate. “I’m too scared to tell people to put them on,” she said. “They will scream at you.”
Another staff member, Richard Rice, said that he probably would not ask people to wear masks. “I think adhering to a mask mandate is more up to the individual than the institution,” he said. “I’m not the mask police.”
At nearby Chaumont, a vegan bakery, a line of largely masked people snaked across the tiny storefront. One customer, Melissa Fry, who was unmasked, said she felt frustrated by the new rules, as other states returned to normalcy. “I had COVID, so I don’t feel that I need the vaccine,” she said, adding that even if she had not gotten sick, she would still not have been vaccinated.
Her friend Sarah Robarts, who had a gray mask pulled over her face, disagreed. “If it’s for the betterment of the whole,” she said. “We’ve got to do it, and I’ll roll with it, as inconvenient as it is to me personally.”
Keeping track of the ever-changing policies and recommendations has been a yearlong challenge for residents of Los Angeles County.
County health officials came under public pressure in January, when the decision to continue vaccinating only health care workers contradicted a state announcement of eligibility for adults age 65 and older. A few days later, the county backtracked on its strategy.
In June, just two weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted California’s mask mandate as part of the state’s “grand reopening,” county health officials released a statement “strongly” recommending that all vaccinated people wear masks indoors, despite eased restrictions. California gives counties the option to impose tighter restrictions locally, but the state has maintained the CDC recommendation that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in most situations.
The vaccination rate in Los Angeles County is above the national average, with more than 69% of residents receiving at least one dose and 61% being fully vaccinated. But with millions still unvaccinated, local officials said the renewed mandate was needed.
“Waiting for us to be at high community transmission level before making a change would be too late,” the Los Angeles County health officer, Muntu Davis, said Thursday.
At the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown Hotel, the 70th floor lobby was jammed Saturday evening with about 100 revelers, about half of them unmasked.
By midmorning Sunday, about a dozen guests milled around the lobby, all masked save for one lone tourist, who was at a window taking a selfie. Near the check-in desk, the concierge was handing out face coverings to “comply with the mandate,” he said.
In an elevator, three unmasked men vacationing from Tunisia, who said they had been vaccinated, instantly produced blue surgical masks and slipped them on when informed that the mandate had taken effect.
“Better safe than sorry,” said a guest in a black mask and workout gear who identified himself as a Korean Air pilot.
Still, the relative tolerance varied from place to place.
In Santa Clarita, a relatively conservative area northwest of downtown Los Angeles, fewer people had masks on and more of them were unhappy about it.
“This is a very red area,” said Stacey Simmons, a psychotherapist who was eating potato hash at a local cafe. “Out here people are kind of anti-vaccine.”
At the nearby Marci’s Sports Bar & Grill, where U.S. flags hung behind the bar and almost nobody was wearing a mask, some patrons complained about the new rules and others said they were not aware that anything had changed.
“You hear so many things, you don’t know what to believe, really,” said John Galloway, who was sitting in the courtyard of the bar.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.