California will lift its indoor mask requirements Tuesday for unvaccinated people and March 12 for schools and child care facilities, state officials said Monday.
The changes mark the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began that both unvaccinated people and students will be allowed to remove their masks indoors.
Newsom jointly announced the new statewide masking policy with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who also announced changes in their states, citing declining COVID case rates and hospitalizations across the west coast.
"Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high," Newsom said in a statement. "We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward."
California public health officials made the official decision to pull back on masking requirements after the state's COVID cases, hospitalizations and other metrics fell between 47 and 66 percent over the last two weeks, state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in an afternoon briefing.
Ghaly noted that mask requirements could eventually be reinstated in some form if the virus surges once again, as the state includes the use of masks in its long-term plan for combating the virus' worst outcomes.
For the immediate future, however, Ghaly said masking decisions will be left to individual residents. The state will also still encourage local governments to enforce indoor masking as they see fit.
"There's plenty of individuals who believe that masking is a way to stay safe ... and today's announcement should be one where we are saying loud and clear that those individuals are empowered to continue to make a choice to keep themselves safe, to wear a mask if that's the right decision for them," Ghaly said.
Masks will still be required under state and federal rules in health care settings, prisons, homeless shelters, long-term care faciltiies and on public transit.
California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said he expected mixed reactions to the removal of school mask requirements and called for respect and understanding as the announcement "is bound to disrupt and destabilize some school communities."
"Simply put, while some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid," Boyd said. "We urge local school districts to continue to work with educators and families and to act cautiously while prioritizing the safety of students, educators, and their families."
Education officials in the Bay Area also signaled their support for the lifting mask requirements in schools, as did officials in San Francisco.
"Masks are still an important prevention tool for now and in the future, and we may need to rely on masks again if we see new surges in cases or new variants," San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip said. "For now, with case rates continuing to drop, this is a safe step in a direction toward fewer restrictions."
Ghaly said the state did not make its decision in consultation with the state's teachers unions, focusing its attention on "the data and information."
"Today is an important day for California, one that is driven by the data and the science ... but one that we know will be received with some trepidation," he said.
Most counties across the state and in the Bay Area have already removed their indoor mask requirements for vaccinated people.