Southern California cities rebel against new mask mandate, hinting at delta variant drama to come

Tom Hammel, left, and Darren D'Altorio, right, enjoy the camaraderie of a return to the office June 29, 2021, in El Segundo, Calif. Los Angeles County has since reimposed indoor mask mandates.
Tom Hammel, left, and Darren D'Altorio, right, enjoy the camaraderie of a return to the office June 29, 2021, in El Segundo, Calif. Los Angeles County has since reimposed indoor mask mandates.Photo for The Washington Post by Linnea Bullion

PASADENA, Calif. - Los Angeles County's new mask mandate is infuriating officials in the sprawling region, leading to angry denunciations as some irate local leaders demand resignations and threaten to cut ties and form their own public health departments.

"The county cannot handle our current situation," said Councilman Tony Wu of West Covina, a town of about 110,000 in the eastern part of the county. "We are absolutely not going to enforce nothing about this BS."

The municipal mess reflects the growing national tension over how to respond to the coronavirus's new delta variant, which has led to a sizable rebound in cases and caught many government officials and business leaders by surprise. It is reviving tensions about vaccination levels and mask rules at a moment when many Americans had thought the virus was behind them.

This particular uproar underscores the volatile politics around the pandemic even in liberal Southern California, where patience has worn out in some quarters with new demands from health officials. Barely a month after state officials lifted nearly all pandemic restrictions - and even as the White House continues to insist that vaccinated people need not wear masks - the nation's largest county clamped back down this past weekend, announcing a new requirement for everyone to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

The backlash was immediate. While dominated by the city of Los Angeles itself, L.A. County is home to around 10 million residents spread across 88 distinct cities separated by hundreds of miles. And in some of these places, local officials have had it.

"We have had enough of these policies! We demand that you stop this one-size-fits-all approach to health and health outcomes," elected officials from a half-dozen towns including El Segundo, Torrance and Manhattan Beach wrote this week in a letter to their local county supervisor. "We implore you to modify this recent order, engage with us, and set a policy that better reflects the unique context of our area."

Torrance and West Covina - and even tony Beverly Hills - are among the cities that have either launched or are exploring efforts to break away and set up their own health departments that would not be beholden to the county's dictates. No such effort has been attempted in decades, as far as the officials involved are aware, but they are pushing ahead, setting up talks with county and state officials and directing their city attorneys to examine how to move forward.

"I've been advocating for Torrance to detach from L.A. County's health department for months now," said Torrance City Council member Aurelio Mattucci. "This latest mask mandate is really going to have a terrible effect on businesses, it's really going to instill more fear in shoppers and patrons and that's where I think we need to draw the line."

Beverly Hills Mayor Robert Wunderlich said he viewed the county's new mask mandate as "justifiable" given rising cases, but asked, "Did they pick the optimal way? I'm not sure."

His city is in the process of enlisting an expert to help officials understand what setting up a public health department of their own would entail. The argument for doing so, Wunderlich said, would be "to have things in our own hands, for us to be in the position to be decision-makers about requirements and rules."

In announcing the new mask mandate, the county pointed to a sevenfold increase in new cases since the state reopened June 15, driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. In a written response to questions, the L.A. County health department's communications office defended the department's move and suggested it would be unwise for cities to try to create their own health departments. The agency did not directly respond to calls for the head of the health department to step down.

"Cities can only establish their own health departments with state approval and demonstrated capacity to perform essential public health functions," the county health department said. "Given the alarming increase in cases and hospitalizations across the county and the increasing circulation of the more infectious delta variant, we urge city managers and elected officials to support this sensible public health measure as this is a relatively non-disruptive action that can help slow the spread of the virus. At this point, working together is the most sensible path forward."

But some local business leaders questioned how a mask mandate imposed by L.A. County would do anything but create chaos and confusion, especially since residents in some areas of the county could drive a block and go shopping or out to eat in places like Orange County or Ventura County, which have imposed no new mandates.

"We really want L.A. County to remain aligned with the state because it does create confusion," said Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, president and chief executive at the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce. "You could literally go into a neighboring area and it could possibly have a different set of restrictions."

Vanyek and other critics of the county's move questioned whether it would end up being just a first step back toward the kinds of capacity restrictions or even outright closures that hammered businesses in the early weeks and months of the pandemic. "That's the big concern," she said.

Supporters of L.A. County's move say it's just the opposite - an effort to ensure that case rates don't get so high that the county does have to look at going back into lockdown. That includes Ying-Ying Goh, head of the public health department in Pasadena which - along with Long Beach - is one of two cities in the county that already has its own public health department. Although Pasadena is not bound by what L.A. County does, it is imposing a mask mandate similar to the one that already took effect elsewhere in the county. Despite very high vaccination rates in Pasadena, cases there have increased 240 percent since July 1, Goh said.

"It's not that public health is going back and forth with this restriction and that restriction, it's because we are in a different situation" with the delta variant, Goh said. She asked the public for patience but also to "understand how we are trying to keep our economy open with just a small restriction."

And even though Pasadena has its own health department, Goh questioned the ability of other cities to follow suit. In Pasadena, the health department is 129 years old and predates the county health agency. Public health departments are responsible for much more than making decisions about what kinds of coronavirus restrictions businesses have to follow, Goh noted, which is the issue that seems to animate officials in other cities that are exploring the move. "It's much more than permitting restaurants," she said.

In some ways the debate over cities trying to create their own health departments resonates with other secession efforts that have rocked California over the years, including arguments over whether the San Fernando Valley should secede from the rest of Los Angeles, or whether the state should break itself up into two or even three pieces. Supporters argue that far-flung cities with lower infection rates shouldn't be bound by one-size-fits-all rules handed down by the county.

But if the point is to create more certainty for businesses and residents, the result might be to produce even less, since the outcome could be a haphazard patchwork of different rules and regulations across Southern California, opponents say.

"Breaking away won't be a solution to things like this - it further fragments the approach to ensuring we have healthy communities," said Maria S. Salinas, head of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents Torrance, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach and other aggrieved municipalities, said she would prefer to see the county act in concert with the rest of California, "but in this instance they just felt like the cases in L.A. County were increasing so rapidly that they just couldn't wait." Cases have been surging elsewhere in California, too, and other counties have also begun recommending indoor mask-wearing, but Los Angeles County is the only one so far to impose a new mandate.

As far as cities trying to stand up their own health departments, "I do believe most people will probably not take that across the finish line," Hahn said. She added, however, that she herself is the target of a recall effort over her response to the pandemic.