The Slatest

L.A. County Sheriff Won’t Enforce New Mask Mandate: “Not Backed by Science”

Masked and unmasked people make their way through Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California on June 29, 2021.
Masked and unmasked people make their way through Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California on June 29, 2021. FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is pushing back against a new requirement to wear masks in indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status that is set to take effect Saturday night. The country’s most populous county is instituting the new mask mandate amid a surge in cases but Villanueva says the move contradicts guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Forcing the vaccinated and those who already contracted Covid-19 to wear masks indoors is not backed by science,” Villanueva wrote in a statement posted on his department’s website. Although Villanueva recognizes that the county’s Department of Public Health “has authority” to issue the order, “the underfunded/defunded Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will not expend our limited resources and instead ask for voluntary compliance.”

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The mandate comes after weeks of public health officials urging people to wear masks indoors s the highly contagious Delta variant is making COVID-19 cases soar across the state. But it’s unclear whether people will be willing to put on masks again, particularly with Villanueva making it clear there will be little, if any enforcement. The L.A. County Department of Public Health could issue citations to businesses that don’t comply but a spokeswoman said “education and information sharing” would be the main strategy. “Our community will not be able to enforce our way out of this pandemic,” the spokeswoman, Natalie Jimenez, said.

Los Angeles County has been recording an average of more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases each day over the past week. And on Friday there was another big jump with more than 1,900 new COVID-19 cases. Hospitalizations are also increasing although the vast majority of patients are unvaccinated. With the new mandate, “vaccinated people are being asked to make a sacrifice to help slow coronavirus spread among the unvaccinated,” notes the Los Angeles Times. Around 52 percent of L.A. County residents are fully vaccinated and around 60 percent have gotten at least one shot. L.A. County also isn’t alone in urging people to wear masks indoors.

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Villanueva’s combative statement against the new mandate comes at a time when the sheriff who was elected by winning over liberal, progressive voters has taken a marked turn to the right. The Los Angeles Times detailed this shift in a recent profile:

Villanueva has appeared on Fox News to dismiss the notion of widespread police brutality, and in regular social media broadcasts, he has taken on a Trump-like demeanor, calling his critics trolls and out-of-touch elites. His news conferences have featured conservative politicians and personalities. He’s reveled in publicly rebuking local elected Democrats, including the mayor of Los Angeles, for what he sees as their inept handling of the city’s homelessness crisis, and he eagerly joined the campaign to kick the county’s ultra-progressive district attorney out of office.

And, in a move that is more NRA than ACLU, Villanueva has made it a mission to dramatically increase the number of people in Los Angeles County permitted to carry concealed guns.

It all has left the county’s Democratic Party machine, which helped put Villanueva in office, awash in feelings of betrayal and buyer’s remorse that culminated last month with a demand that the sheriff resign. And, as a reelection bid looms, Villanueva’s jag to the right has people puzzling over whether the maneuvers are part of a deliberate plan to win over a new base of voters or just the undisciplined scattershot of a man without a vision.

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