COVID-19 in California: Bay Area Counties Join Others in Mandating Face Coverings

April 20, 2020

Several counties and cities in California are requiring individuals to wear cloth face coverings, including those working in or visiting public-facing essential businesses during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

San Francisco Bay Area counties, whose orders were recently amended to require social distancing protocols, have now issued face covering requirements as well. On April 17, San Francisco, Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Alameda counties issued nearly identical orders generally requiring all people to wear face coverings when visiting certain essential businesses, working, seeking medical care, or waiting for or riding on shared transportation. These orders took effect at 12:00 am on April 17, but will not be enforced until April 22.

San Francisco County’s accompanying press release describes its order in simple terms, and states that people are required to wear face coverings at the following times:

  • Inside public spaces or waiting in line to enter public spaces
  • Seeking healthcare
  • Waiting for or riding on mass transit or other shared transportation
  • In common areas of buildings, such as hallways, stairways, elevators, and parking facilities
  • Working at businesses physically open and in areas where the public is present, likely to be present, or at any time when others are nearby
  • Working in any space where food is being prepared and/or packaged for sale
  • Driving or operating public transit

According to a press release, businesses must require face coverings for both employees and customers. While six Bay Area counties previously issued their shelter-in-place orders in lockstep, it appears that Santa Clara may not issue a similar order due to concerns that it may exacerbate problems securing medical grade masks for healthcare workers and first responders.

These orders followed Los Angeles City and County orders, which were issued earlier this month. On April 7, the City of Los Angeles ordered public-facing essential businesses, including grocery stores; organizations that provide services to the needy; hardware stores and plant nurseries; miscellaneous in-person workers such as plumbers, moving services, property managers, and others; laundry services; restaurants and retail food facilities; grocery delivery services; taxis and ride-sharing services; and hotels and shared rental units, to require employees and customers to wear non–medical grade face coverings. On April 10, Los Angeles County followed suit, and issued an order requiring essential workers who work near other employees or the public—as well as customers—to wear non–medical grade face coverings.

Other counties and cities in California, such as Long Beach, Irvine, Pasadena, Palm Springs, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego County, and Sonoma, have issued similar face covering requirements. Fresno County took this one step further and issued an order requiring both face coverings and illness screenings for all employees and visitors, but not customers, of certain essential businesses.

These orders were in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) April 3 guidance, which now recommends that individuals wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Due to widespread shortages of surgical masks and N-95 respirators—which should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders—the CDC recommends that individuals wear cloth face coverings that meet the following criteria:

  • Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
  • Can be secured with ties or ear loops
  • Include multiple layers of fabric
  • Allow for breathing without restriction
  • Can be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape

These ever-changing requirements give rise to a host of practical and legal issues for employers. Employers may be scrambling to find appropriate cloth face coverings and prepare training, but both the CDC and California Department of Public Health have issued guidance on these issues. In addition, certain local orders specifically require employers to pay for the face coverings. Mandatory use of face coverings implicates a number of other issues for employers.

Coronavirus COVID-19 Task Force

For our clients, we have formed a multidisciplinary Coronavirus COVID-19 Task Force to help guide you through the broad scope of legal issues brought on by this public health challenge. We also have launched a resource page to help keep you on top of developments as they unfold. If you would like to receive a daily digest of all new updates to the page, please subscribe now to receive our COVID-19 alerts.


If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this LawFlash, please contact any of the following Morgan Lewis lawyers:

Silicon Valley
Alicia J. Farquhar
Michael D. Schlemmer