LOS ANGELES -- Last month, flanked by the "Transformers" robot hero Optimus Prime and a bevy of Minions from the "Despicable Me" movie franchise, Gov. Gavin Newsom triumphantly stood before the Universal Studios Hollywood globe, lifting more than a year's worth of pandemic health restrictions and announcing California's "grand reopening."
"We are here today, June 15, to turn the page," the governor said, his face mask-free in the LA sunshine.
At midnight today, Los Angeles County health authorities will turn back that page.
Just four weeks into California's push for a return to normalcy, health officials in the state's most populous county announced that masks would again be required indoors starting this weekend, the first major county in America to restore indoor masking requirements regardless of vaccination status.
Driven by the rise of the ultracontagious delta variant and pockets of low vaccination, the announcement, which affects more than 10 million Californians, led a wave of heightened health warnings in a state of 40 million people. It also reflected concern nationally that vaccine defiance, disinformation and the variant have been responsible for significant increases in coronavirus cases in Arkansas, Louisiana and elsewhere.
Los Angeles County's new rules came Thursday as the University of California's 10-campus system announced that most faculty, staff and students will be barred from its campuses this fall if they show up without vaccinations. Health authorities in Sacramento, Fresno and Yolo counties also recommended, but did not yet require, that residents return to indoor masking, a move that was followed Friday by Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties in the Bay Area.
The new local and institutional health rules also sowed confusion.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the state's Department of Public Health have said fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in most situations. However, Los Angeles has been among the more cautious jurisdictions throughout its response to the pandemic, and California's guidance gives counties the option to impose tighter restrictions locally.
Officials in Los Angeles stressed that they were acting out of an abundance of caution, in an effort to preempt the sort of case numbers that have rapidly increased in other parts of the country. Every state has reported an increase in the number of new virus cases in recent days.
California's figures have nearly tripled over the past month, largely because of San Bernardino and Los Angeles, but the current rate of 3,000 new cases a day is a blip compared with the winter peak, when there were more than 44,000. California is doing slightly better than the national per-capita average and far better than in hot spots around the country. In parts of Missouri, hospitals have been stretched thin by an influx of coronavirus patients.
Scientists say that the some 160 million people across the country who are fully vaccinated are largely protected from the virus, including the delta variant. But particularly in places like the South, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country, the risk of a fresh spike is serious, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine.
"If you have been lucky enough to escape infection previously and you're not vaccinated, your luck is about to run out," Hotez said.
Fifty-one percent of Californians are fully vaccinated, well below the levels in some Northeastern states but above the national rate. Vaccines are free and available to anyone 12 or older. In Los Angeles County, where public health officials had already been recommending masks indoors, new cases have spiked more than 200% in the past two weeks, to more than 1,000 per day.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has described the delta variant as "the greatest threat in the U.S. to our attempt to eliminate covid-19." More than 63,000 Californians have died of the coronavirus. Fewer than 40 deaths statewide are being announced on most recent days, down from more than 500 a day during much of January.
At the University of California, President Michael Drake said in a letter to chancellors that the current research, both from medical studies and the university's own infectious disease experts, clearly pointed to the need for a vaccine mandate for anyone who was going to be on campus.
"Vaccination is by far the most effective way to prevent severe disease and death after exposure to the virus and to reduce spread of the disease to those who are not able, or not yet eligible, to receive the vaccine," wrote Drake, who is also a physician.
The requirement will apply to both students and employees, as well as participants in athletic and study-abroad programs, he said, and it will be enforced even if the vaccines remain under emergency-use authorization.
Hundreds of colleges and universities, including Stanford, the Claremont Colleges and the University of Southern California, have required vaccines for the fall, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But the University of California mandate is the most sweeping so far by a public university.
In liberal Los Angeles, the return of indoor masking did not require a hard sell. The sidewalks of the Los Feliz neighborhood northwest of downtown on Friday were filled with mask-wearing Angelenos working behind counters, sitting around outdoor breakfast tables and standing in morning coffee lines.
Those without masks over their noses and mouths tended to have masks around their necks or dangling from their wrists. Some said they were surprised that Los Angeles County had not re-mandated face coverings sooner.
"What's the virus going to do?" joked Marc Rosales, 26, a cashier at a Hillhurst Avenue pet store. "Wait until Saturday?"