SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Amid a growing downturn in the number of new omicron cases within the city, San Francisco health officials announced Thursday that they will once again allow office workers, gym members and other "stable cohorts" of people remove their COVID masks indoors as of February 1st.
Given the highly transmissible nature of the variant, officials said, they were adding an additional requirement that individuals in these stable cohort groups be up to date on their vaccinations including the primary series and boosters when eligible.
"As we come out of this latest surge and face a future in which COVID-19 will remain among us, San Francisco will take a balanced approach in our response to COVID-19 by aligning with state requirements and guidelines where we can do so safely," said health officer Dr. Susan Philip.
Currently, 82% of those eligible for COVID vaccinations in the city have gotten their complete series of shots. Philip said that number allows San Francisco to be more aggressive than state health officials in easing restrictions put into place during the surge of omicron cases.
"We also acknowledge areas where we can, San Francisco, can be further ahead in easing restrictions, such as the indoor mask exemption for stable cohorts, given our highly vaccinated and boosted population," Philip said. "We will do so carefully and by following our local data and the science, as there are still San Franciscans who are medically vulnerable to the disease and communities that remain highly impacted when case rates are high."
Other changes announced Thursday include allowing patrons with religious and medical exemptions to the city's vaccination requirements indoor access to restaurants, bars, gyms and fitness centers with proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
Patrons will also be allowed to enter indoor "mega-events" of 500 people or more with proof of a negative COVID-19 test as an alternative to being "up to date" on vaccinations.
"These are relatively minor changes with relatively little risk," said Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at UCSF. "It's basically using mask restrictions the same way we add earlier on for ... the places where we know everybody's up to date on their vaccines, like gyms and offices ... I don't see it causing really anything in the way of problems or real big transmission risk."
For Dave Karraker, co-owner of MX3 Fitness, the announcement is a welcome one, even one that might bring people back to their regular gym sessions.
"The city is saying it's safe to go into the gyms -- if you're boosted -- without a mask and that's a big step forward. That's a real reassurance for somebody who may have been on the fence a little bit," Karraker said. He says the many masking flip-flops as variants spiked and fell was tough on his industry. Even so, his gym won't go mask-free right away.
"Our gym, in particular -- we're going to wait a little bit to allow everybody a chance to get boosted," he said.
The updated health order also added a definition for "booster-eligible," which means the time when a person qualifies to receive a booster under U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Until a person is eligible for a booster, they are considered "up to date" on their vaccination. More details on the updated health order can be found on the SF.gov website.
Children in schools will still be required to continue wearing masks indoors and masks are still required in retail stores, bars and restaurants or other places that are open to the public.
With case rates sharply falling after the omicron holdiay surge, this could be the first of many pandemic restrictions to be lifted.
"Right now ... we're still on the glide path down to being free and clear," Dr. Rutherford said.
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