(Rattankun Thongbun/Getty Images)

Amid the spike in COVID cases in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Cruz County has imposed a sweeping indoor mask mandate for private settings including homes.

For those gathering with people who don’t live in the same household, masks should be worn inside regardless of vaccination status, the county announced Monday. The guidelines also apply to businesses, with exceptions for eating and drinking.

Santa Cruz County was the first in California to drop its indoor mask mandate but is reinstating it as COVID cases rise.

“Unfortunately, a potential winter surge appears to be a significant threat to the health and safety of our community,” Dr. Gail Newel, Santa Cruz County’s health officer, said in a press release. Newel said the guidance is to protect vulnerable friends and family members from the disease.

As its enforcement mechanism, the county is demanding that businesses and governmental entities require their staff to wear masks as well as display instructional signs about masking-wearing at storefronts. Newel told the Sentinel on Friday that establishments must comply by Monday.

“If you are gathering with extended family and friends, especially those who have traveled from outside the area or who are unvaccinated, caution is best,” Newel said. “We want to try to get used to the idea of living with this virus and getting back to some sort of normalcy in activities, including being able to gather with people that we love and not have to withhold ourselves from our kids, our grandkids or our grandparents.”

The directive has no expiration date currently, Newel said, but the health office will monitor the case rate, the virus reproductive number, which gauges community transmission, and the test positivity rate to determine when it is safe to revoke it.

“Those are the three main things to watch but our big concern is also saving lives so we will be watching deaths and, additionally, the impacts on our health care system,” Newel said. “There has been quite an increase in hospitalizations in the last week to two weeks.”

California’s COVID transmission rate is higher than many states in the South, most of which have fewer pandemic restrictions, according to data from the CDC. As of November 21, California’s seven-case average was more than twice that of Florida, despite Governor Ron Desantis’ state orders banning mask and vaccine mandates. Similarly, as of November 11, California’s seven-day death rate per 1 million people was eleven times higher than Florida’s.

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