With Mask Mandate Gone, How Can Uber and Lyft Drivers Reduce Their COVID Risk?

Welcome to Pandemic Problems, an advice column from The Chronicle’s engagement reporters that aims to help Bay Area residents solve their pandemic and post-pandemic conundrums — personal, practical or professional.

As COVID evolves into an endemic issue, we know readers are trying to navigate the “new normal.” Send your questions and issues to [email protected].

Today, The Chronicle’s Kellie Hwang fields a question from a reader who is concerned about the COVID risk to ride-hailing drivers in the Bay Area.

Dear Advice Team:

Drivers can spend several hours a day transporting passengers. Lyft and Uber used to require passengers to wear masks. That mandate has stopped. Passengers now have the option. Many still do, but lots do not. That puts drivers at risk of catching COVID.

I liken the risk to a doctor’s office visit. Doctors have likely been double vaccinated and boosted, and continue to wear a mask. But they ALSO require visiting patients to wear a mask. When I visited a hospital recently for a routine blood test, I was required to double mask. So if doctors and hospitals require masks of patients, but Lyft and Uber do not, that tells me that drivers are at risk of catching COVID.

I recently started driving again. But I double mask and keep as many windows as I can open. Often I can open at least three if my passenger closes theirs. I also carry hand wipes to wipe my hands if I think I need it. Beyond this, what advice would you have for Lyft and Uber drivers?

Dear Reader:

It makes sense that ride-hailing and taxi drivers would be concerned about COVID safety, considering the tight quarters they share with their passengers.

While cases from the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant appear to have peaked in California, they still remain high, and as you noted, masks are no longer mandatory in most places — these days, people are required to wear them mainly in health care settings.

Also, traveling in vehicles can raise your risk of contracting the coronavirus, according to experts contacted for this column.

“The more people one is in contact with in an enclosed space, the more likely it is one will be exposed to and possibly infected,” wrote Art Reingold, a UC Berkeley epidemiologist, in an email — although, he added, “No one can quantify that risk with any precision.”

Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford, said the close contact nature of being inside a car can be enough to spread the virus if a passenger is contagious.

But that doesn’t mean drivers can’t lower their risk through tried-and-true methods — as UCSF infectious disease expert Peter Chin-Hong calls them, the “ABCs of maximal COVID protection.”

• “A” stands for the air you want to ensure is as clean as possible.

That includes wearing a high quality mask, such as an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask.

“This also means maximizing the ventilation in the car,” Chin-Hong wrote in an email. “Studies have shown that slightly opening the opposite windows to create a wind barrier was most effective if you can’t crack open all the windows.”

Turning on the air conditioning is OK, as long as you aren’t using the recirculated air function.

“Fresh air is a million times better,” Chin-Hong added.

If a passenger is unmasked and doesn’t want their windows open, Chin-Hong said that as long as it’s a shorter trip and the driver is able to open the front windows, it should be a relatively safe situation.

He stressed that passengers should sit in the back, and ideally diagonal from the driver if possible.

• “B” is for boosters and being up to date on your COVID vaccines.

Vaccinations and boosters are “probably the most important thing you can do if you want to lower your chance of infection, and especially if you want to prevent getting seriously ill,” Chin-Hong said.

Reingold also stressed that “the most important precaution is being vaccinated and boosted.”

If you’re a parent, you should also get your children vaccinated so they are protected if you become exposed on the job, Chin-Hong said.

• “C” is for COVID testing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should take a test if you have any COVID symptoms or if it’s been at least five days after a known or suspected close contact to COVID-19. Other reasons to take a test can be found here.

If you test positive, isolate for five days. Find the CDC’s full isolation and quarantine guidelines here.

If you put all of these risk-mitigation strategies in place, experts say you can lower your risk considerably while driving.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Beverly Hills City Council Votes Unanimously to Not Enforce County Mask Mandate

More lawmakers continue to announce opposition to new mandate

  1. The Beverly Hills City Council voted to not enforce an all but certain return of the Los Angeles County indoor mask mandate on Monday night.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is only a few days away from announcing whether or not the County has pulled above the ‘high’ CDC new rate and hospitalization threshold for COVID-19 that would automatically trigger a return of the indoor mask mandate to the County. Such as return has been threatened for months, with it only becoming a looming issue on July 15th when the Public Health Department said that the threshold was reached and that the County has two weeks to get below or else the mandate would return as early as July 29th.

While local businesses in the County are scrambling to get ready in time in order to remain open, many cities have been looking at ways to make the mandate more manageable, with others trying to find ways to not make a mandate so impactful on their city. On Monday, Beverly Hills made the largest step, by far, of any city, deciding to not enforce the mask mandate within the city. In an announcement, the city noted that enforcement would instead fall to the Public Health Department itself, with no city resources to go to the enforcement of the mask mandate.

“I feel it is our job to lead and I support the power of choice,” said Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse on Monday in a statement. “Our job is to be proactive and public about what we believe. This is a united City Council and community that cares about health. We are not where we were in 2020, and now we need to move forward as a community and be part of the solution.”

Beverly Hills rejects mandatory masking enforcement

Beverly Hills wasn’t the only one to make such an announcement on Monday either, as other lawmakers have come forward opposing the return of the mandate. The most prominent, besides the city, was Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who not only brought into doubt what the effectiveness of masking was, but also noted the recent Alameda County indoor mask mandate returning for only a few weeks last month before abruptly ending once again.

“I have not seen any empirical data that conclusively shows that masking mandates make a difference in decreasing or stopping COVID-19 transmission rates,” wrote Barger on Monday. “An analysis of Alameda County’s June 2022 masking mandate, in fact, concluded it had no significant impact in comparison to its surrounding counties that did not impose a masking mandate. Alameda County dropped this mandate after only three weeks.”

Analysts noted that other cities might join Beverly Hills soon, or at least have prominent lawmakers continue to come out against a mandate.

“Less and less people are standing for these mandates,” explained Chelsea Lang, an LA County political consultant, to the Globe on Tuesday. “And that includes those in office. They’ve seen what these mandates can do to businesses and how they can negatively affect citizens. So they’re taking a stand. They’re saying ‘Hey, you can say that masking is back, but if you want it back so much, you deal with it.”

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Don’t bring back COVID mask mandate, business group tells LA County

An alliance of Los Angeles County business groups on Thursday, July 21, called on health officials to abandon plans for a universal COVID-19 indoor mask mandate, saying the move would be “heavy-handed” and a burden on businesses that will be forced to enforce the rule.

“This is not a debate about choosing between lives and livelihoods,” Tracy Hernandez, founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, said in a statement.

“This is a discussion about educating and empowering Angelenos to make smart choices about protecting their health, our workers and the region’s collective ability to weather this latest wave of infections. We can do better than a heavy-handed mandate at this stage of pandemic recovery and endemic recalibration.”

The county is on track to re-impose an indoor mask-wearing mandate on July 29, based on the current elevated transmission level of the virus and rising hospitalization numbers. The county last week entered the “high” virus activity level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dozens of counties across the state have also moved into the “high” transmission category, but Los Angeles is the only county that has announced plans to reinstate a mask mandate. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has repeatedly defended the move, calling it a simple yet effective way of slowing virus transmission and preventing hospitals from becoming overburdened.

Some critics, however, have questioned the need for a mandate, suggesting instead that a voluntary call would raise awareness of virus spread and encourage people to make their own decisions without placing an enforcement burden on small businesses.

In a statement Thursday, BizFed expressed support for a voluntary rule — which is already in effect — but said forcing businesses to enforce a mandate will “stymie economic recovery, confuse COVID-weary residents and further erode public trust in governing bodies.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger last week urged Ferrer to conduct extensive outreach to businesses to discuss plans for the masking rule and the possible impacts of the regulation, particularly since surrounding counties will not be imposing a mandate. Ferrer said such efforts were already underway.

“Our hope is people will go ahead and make every effort to come into compliance,” Ferrer said during a media briefing last week, adding that there will be no exemptions for businesses such as gyms or yoga studios.

“Spread is super high everywhere,” she said. “We have lots and lots of outbreaks, so we are going to ask that everybody go ahead with indoor masking.”

Masks are already still mandated in some indoor spaces — healthcare facilities, transit hubs, on transit vehicles, airports, correctional facilities and shelters. A universal mandate would spread the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, indoor events, indoor restaurants and bars and schools.

Click here to read the full article in the Los Angeles Daily News

Southern Californian K-12 School Districts, Universities Announce Return of Mask Mandates

During the weekend, schools across Southern California reinstated indoor mask mandates in the buildup to the return of the fall semester next month, despite many parents and groups now in opposition to the mandates.

Many of the affected schools are in K-12 districts. Of those to announce the return of mandates during the weekend, the most prominent was the San Diego Unified School District. The decision, triggered by the District due to the County surpassing the “high” CDC COVID-19 community levels of new cases and hospitalizations on Thursday, will at the very least be active for two weeks. However, with the rise of BA.4 and BA.5 variants of COVID across the state, it will likely not be going away anytime soon.

“We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 community level according to the CDC and County data and we will communicate if there are any changes in two weeks,” the San Diego school district said during the weekend. “If your student is participating in summer school or other summer enrichment program, please send them to school or their program with a mask. If they do not have one, masks will be provided. Students and staff will be required to wear their masks while indoors only.”

Joining K-12 districts were higher and secondary education colleges and universities. UC Irvine, UC Riverside, and UCLA were among the most prominent to return to the mandates, with UCLA actually having been on a continual indoor mask requirement renewal since last month. Like the K-12 districts, most of the campuses have all tied the return of the mandates to the CDC “high” community level threshold.

“In order to help mitigate possible exposure to and transmission of COVID-19 on property controlled by UCI, and to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the UCI community, the following requirements apply,” said UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman in a letter on Monday. “This Executive Directive (“Directive”) is being re-issued and effective on the date indicated above, as Orange County recently moved into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (“CDC”) “High” Covid-19 Community Level. This Directive supersedes all prior campuswide guidance regarding face coverings to the extent such guidance is inconsistent with this Executive Directive.”

“This Directive applies to all individuals on UCI controlled property and UCI employees conducting work off-site when not at their living unit.”

The number of districts and universities bringing back the mandate is expected to be significantly increased later this month due to LA County likely falling under the CDC threshold by then, despite many county health experts only calling the situation “media hype”.

The return of mask mandates in schools

While few districts and universities have already announced mask mandates for the upcoming fall semester, with San Diego’s school district specifically saying that they haven’t brought them back for the semester yet, many worry that they will ultimately be back in place before schools start fall classes next month.

“It’s good to be cautious, especially when it comes to the health of children,” said Luisa Renteria, a nurse in Los Angeles who has assisted COVID patients since March 2020, to the Globe on Monday. “But they are treating this as if COVID is still out there as this big, scary disease that is killing everyone instead of treating like a more seasonal disease like the Flu which it is quickly becoming.”

“Now new COVID-19 case numbers have rebounded a bit. We can’t deny that. California hit a 7-day average peak of new cases in January with 119,536. Beginning of February it was 66,000, with April going below 3,000. These new variants then caused numbers to go back up. June hit 15,471, and recently the state has been back up over 20,000 per weekly average. But the average number of deaths have stayed low. We are below where they were in April and are currently at a weekly average of 36.”

“This is what you aren’t hearing. No one is really dying from COVID anymore, it’s just the number of cases, and to a lesser extent, the number of hospitalizations. But rather that focus on methods used to combat other season illnesses, especially washing hands, it’s just back to masks based solely on where the CDC line is. They aren’t taking into account anything else really, like vaccination levels, class makeup, parental decisions, class need, or any other of the dozens of factors. And they absolutely should.”

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe