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San Francisco reconsiders indoor mask mandates

With new COVID cases waning, San Francisco is reconsidering the mask guidelines put in place in August as part of a regional effort to stamp out the Delta variant. 

New COVID cases fell to 76 per day as of Sept. 26, the most recent daily average available and the lowest rate since mid-July. San Francisco’s Public Health Department is looking at options for easing the city’s mask mandate, “beginning with settings where there is lower risk, low contact rates, and where people are fully vaccinated,” said a spokesperson. 

Merchants in the San Francisco’s Financial District say the strict city guidelines make for a dismal business outlook, noting a persistent absence of office workers. San Francisco’s office occupancy is the lowest of any metro area, according to the building access firm Kastle Systems.

San Francisco and other Bay Area counties, where vaccination rates are high, have generally issued health orders in unison since the onset of the pandemic. None, however, have set a specific target yet for when the mandate might be lifted—and neighboring counties in Northern California appear to be setting their own paths for a possible easing of mandates. 

Last week, Santa Cruz county lifted its mask mandate shortly after being placed in the CDC’s “moderate” transmission category, defined as between 15 and 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week and a positivity rate of 5% to 8%. 

San Francisco’s positivity rate is hovering at less than 2%, with about 10 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, or roughly 70 per week. That places San Francisco in the CDC’s “substantial” transmission category, though public health officials expect a continued downward trend in the coming weeks.

In Sacramento county, health officials told reporters last week that the county may lift its mask mandate when its seven-day case average drops to five cases per 100,000 people per day. Health officers in neighboring Yolo county set a threshold of two cases per 100,000 to scrap that county’s mask mandate. 

Questions over the viability of local mask mandates came to a head when Mayor London Breed was filmed maskless at the Black Cat nightclub and later defended herself by calling the masking requirement for bar and restaurant patrons not “realistic.”

Under California’s emergency health orders, however, the authority to change the rules lies with the city health department, not Breed.

Eight Bay Area counties reinstated the current mask mandate on Aug. 2 when public health officers issued a joint order requiring masks in indoor settings regardless of vaccination status. The mandate applies to office workers, as well as bar and restaurant patrons who aren’t actively eating or drinking. San Francisco’s health order generally leaves it up to businesses to ensure patrons or employees are complying with the mandates. 

“While our masking requirements remain in effect, we continue to monitor the data and discussions are ongoing with our regional and state partners on next steps,” said a DPH spokesperson. “As it has been the case since the outset of the pandemic, we will be guided by science and, to the extent possible, will take a regional approach on virus mitigation strategies.”

Annie Gaus can be reached at