Sunday’s showdown between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium was a pivotal moment for two California teams, but the uproar that followed had little to do with the Rams advancing to the Super Bowl.
Former Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson took to Twitter to share images of him with several prominent politicians and other luminaries at the football game — including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and San Francisco Mayor London Breed — who were all photographed without face masks.
“Hanging out at SoFi Stadium today!” Johnson wrote in the tweet showcasing the maskless group.
The post was met with swift backlash from commenters noting that California’s universal mask mandate requires residents to wear face coverings in all indoor public spaces and in common areas of outdoor “mega-events” with 5,000 or more people, regardless of vaccination status. Los Angeles County also requires all people attending large indoor and outdoor events to wear masks, except when eating and drinking.
Earlier this month, state officials extended the mask mandate through Feb. 15 amid surging cases of COVID-19.
Representatives for Garcetti and Newsom said they removed their masks only briefly to pose for the photos, but wore them the rest of the game.
At least three crowd shots captured by the L.A. Rams’ “FanCam” showed the mayor donning a face mask in the stands. Newsom was captured in one shot with a mask dangling from his ear, but two additional images showed him wearing his mask while seated at the game.
But in many ways, the damage was already done. County residents and anti-mask groups seized on the moment to decry the politicians for their apparent hypocrisy, noting that the photos appeared to violate not only some state and county rules but also the stadium’s own mask policy, which allows for masks to be removed only to actively eat and drink.
In response to the outcry, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger called for the reevaluation of the county’s COVID-19 masking policy — although she did not call out any politicians by name.
“Masking rules set by the state and county weren’t followed consistently by everyone at yesterday’s NFC championship,” Barger said. “Instead, we saw individuals choosing to mask up based on calculated personal risk. … Let’s do away with blanket COVID-19 masking policies — they don’t make a difference when they’re not consistently followed or enforced.”
In a news release Monday, the L.A. County Department of Public Health said there has been high mask compliance among businesses in the county. It noted that ending mask mandates “would be like eliminating speed limits because so many drivers ignore them and feel that they can assess for themselves the safe speed for their travel.”
“At some point soon, transmission will be significantly lower, and we will not need to wear our masks everywhere; unfortunately, we aren’t there yet,” officials said.
Public health officials conducted more than 1,400 site inspections between Jan. 21 and 27, they said, and compliance was “near or above” 90% in restaurants, bars, nightclubs, food markets and hotels and 80% in gyms, among other businesses.
During a news conference in Los Angeles on Monday, Newsom said he was “very judicious” at the game and that he removed his mask to take the photo, but kept it in his hand.
“The rest of the time I wore it, as we all should,” he said, adding that he was “trying to be gracious and took the mask off for a brief second.”
“I encourage people to continue to wear them,” he added.
For some, the incident was a reminder of Newsom’s now-infamous November 2020 dinner at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa, where photos of the governor without a face mask prompted him to apologize for attending the event, which was held amid state recommendations to avoid gatherings with those outside one’s immediate household.
Erin Mellon, Newsom’s communications director, said Monday the governor “acknowledged that he took off his mask for a few moments during Sunday’s game.”
“He continues to encourage all Californians to do their part to get through the pandemic and this latest surge, including wearing a mask and getting vaccinated,” Mellon said.
Breed in September also came under fire after being caught on video without a mask in a San Francisco jazz bar and nightclub. Her office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
But perhaps the loudest voice was that of parents, who took to social media to decry the images from the football game.
“Why do my kids have to mask at recess tomorrow while you rich and connected folks get to ignore the rules?!?” one person wrote in response to Johnson’s tweet.
State Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) was among those who expressed concern.
“Toddlers are being forced to wear masks all day long in school,” she wrote on Twitter. “Maybe one day they’ll be governor or the mayor of L.A. and they won’t have the follow the rules they impose on others.”
Ross Novie, founder of the anti-mandate group L.A. Uprising, said he was less upset by the politicians’ actions than by that of the entire stadium. Images from the game showed thousands of people in the stands without face masks.
“We see no end in sight to the state of emergency that seems to only be suspended for big-ticket, fun items that don’t involve kids,” Novie said.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said students will be required to wear non-cloth face masks, citing the need for enhanced filtration to protect against the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“Again, the kids come last,” Novie said. “This half-enforcement where in school, kids get yelled at if their mask drops an inch, but everywhere else you can just chuck it on the ground once you get inside? Come on.”
Not everyone was upset. Some commenters came to the politicians’ defense, noting that they appeared to be in an open-air suite at the stadium, and that the masks in their hands indicated they had been removed only for the photos. But many said that does not not excuse the lack of face coverings.
“The very definition of hypocrisy,” one person wrote in response to Johnson’s tweet.
The county health department confirmed via email that “all persons attending indoor and outdoor mega events are required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, except while actively eating and drinking.”
“We appreciate efforts made at the venues to remind spectators of the requirement and ask that attendees take responsibility for protecting each other during the surge by keeping their masks on unless actively eating or drinking,” department officials said.
Officials at So Fi Stadium, which will host the Super Bowl on Feb. 13, said last week that all spectators watching the game will be given KN95 masks upon arrival.
Times staff writers Taryn Luna, Dakota Smith and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.