BENICIA, Calif. – A city in Solano County will soon decide whether to bring back its indoor mask mandate.
Solano County has been an outlier throughout much of the pandemic and recently decided not to join other Bay Area counties in requiring masks indoors for everyone.
Without such county guidance, cities are forced to make up their own rules, and that’s what the City Council of Benicia will be considering next week.
The council may bring back the indoor mask mandate that ended in June.
And if it does so, it will be taking action the County Health Director is against.
Lots of people are currently donning masks voluntarily in Benicia.
Masks are not currently required, even indoors, because the county health director has gone on the record saying the data doesn’t support it, and it could be bad for business.
But Benicia may go ahead and make it a requirement anyway.
“I think the majority of the council, I guess we’ll see, but I think the majority of the community is of the opinion that the direction the county is taking is not necessarily in the long-term health and safety interest of our community,” said Benicia Mayor, Steve Young.
Benicia dropped its indoor mask mandate in June when the state opened up and Covid appeared to be on its way out.
The Delta variant, however, is prompting a potential pivot.
The council will decide Tuesday whether to be the first city in its county to reprise an indoor mask mandate in public spaces, like retail and restaurant, a move already made at the county level in most of the Bay Area.
A business owner says a uniform policy in Benicia would make things easier on establishments that can only put up recommendation signs they really can’t enforce.
“It is what it is. I mean, you really can’t. We just have to trust people. That’s really all we can do,” said Cecilia Climaco, owner of Succulents and More.
A recent cancer survivor says she’s onboard with her city joining the majority of the Bay Area.
“I think since most of the Bay Area is requiring it we ought to too,” said Margaret Linderman.
Another resident also supports the city mandating masks, but doesn’t take issue with different places doing their own thing.
“I think because different areas have different problems with Covid, so I think it should be up to each city to make their own rules,” said Alicia Gallagher.
The Mayor says it’s potentially unsafe to have unmasked, unvaccinated people interacting closely indoors with workers that really don’t have a choice.
It’s also unfortunate, he says, that cities and counties are again having to consider requiring behaviors people could well do on their own.
It’s personally frustrating because if everybody had been vaccinated, if everybody was wearing a mask, we wouldn’t be here, but that’s clearly not the case,” said Mayor Young.
The City Council will vote on the ordinance at their meeting Tuesday and need just three of five members to approve.
The Mayor says the Health Director will be phoning-in to argue against approval.
If passed, the mandate would be temporary, perhaps 90 days, but could also be extended or rescinded sooner, all depending on what the Delta variant is doing.
At its meeting last night, the Benicia City Council debated and approved a proposal to hold a special meeting next week to consider instituting a Citywide indoor mask mandate.
The meeting will be held next Tuesday, August 24 at 6pm. Here’s the Agenda.
Some observers at yesterday’s meeting felt that Council members Trevor Macenski and Lionel Largaespada indicated likely opposition for the measure. They have invited Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas to attend next week. Matyas is the ONLY county health officer in the Bay Area who has not instituted masking requirements to head off the spread of the Delta variant. His presence next week will no doubt muddy the waters.
We can only hope that Council will get the required three votes. It’s so sad that face coverings have become a political issue here in Benicia and Solano County. We remember fondly how in March of 2020 our previous City Manager and City Council took charge and declared emergency action in the absence of leadership from the County.
Video of the August 17 City Council discussion and Public Comments on the mask mandate
NOTE: the Council discussion, public comments and action on the issue takes just under an hour, beginning at 1:37:53. Public comments begin at 2:02:30. Final discussion by Council begins at 2:23, and ends with the unanimous vote at 2:30:50. (From there if you’re interested, the Council discusses COVID protocol for reopening the Council Chambers.) And… if the above video does not work for you, you can click here to go to the City website to view the video clip on the mask mandate.
[BenIndy Editor: Here in Solano County, our Public Health Department scaled back on virus reporting a month ago, on June 23. Solano now updates its COVID-19 Dashboard only on Mon., Wed. and Fri.. Previously, the dashboard was updated 5 days a week M-F. – R.S.]
OMAHA,NEB.>> Several states scaled back their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month just as cases across the country started to skyrocket, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their communities.
The shift to weekly instead of daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota marked a notable shift during a pandemic in which coronavirus dashboards have become a staple for Americans closely tracking case counts and trends to navigate a crisis that has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S.
In Nebraska, the state actually stopped reporting on the virus altogether for two weeks after Gov. Pete Ricketts declared an end to the official virus emergency, forcing news reporters to file public records requests or turn to national websites that track state data to learn about COVID statistics. The state backtracked two weeks later and came up with a weekly site that provides some basic numbers.
Other governments have gone the other direction and released more information, with Washington, D.C., this week adding a dashboard on breakthrough cases to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after getting vaccines. Many states have recently gone to reporting virus numbers only on weekdays.
When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting earlier this month, officials said it made sense given the decreasing number of cases and the increasing number of people being vaccinated.
Cases started soaring soon after, and Florida earlier this week made up up one-fifth of the country’s new coronavirus infections. As a result, Florida’s weekly releases — typically done on Friday afternoons — have consequences for the country’s understanding of the current summer surge, with no statewide COVID stats coming out of the virus hotspot for six days a week.
In Florida’s last two weekly reports, the number of new cases shot up from 23,000 to 45,000 and then 73,000 on Friday, an average of more than 10,000 day. Hospitals are starting to run out of space in parts of the state. With cases rising, Democrats and other critics have urged state officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis to resume daily outbreak updates.
“There was absolutely no reason to eliminate the daily updates beyond an effort to pretend like there are no updates,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area.
The trend of reducing data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to virus restrictions and calls to get vaccinated.
“We know that showing the data to others actually is important because the actions that businesses take, the actions that schools take, the actions that civic leaders take, the actions that community leaders take, the actions that each of us individually take are all influenced by our perception of what the risk is out there,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who leads the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
Associated Press Writer Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.
California and its big coastal cities have embraced vaccines to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic. But a Bay Area News Group analysis shows not only are cases rising fast in much of the Golden State, they are soaring in many urban counties that boast high vaccination rates.
Five California counties have both a higher percentage of their eligible residents fully vaccinated and a higher average daily case rate than the statewide average: Los Angeles, San Diego, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco. The five counties with falling case rates — Modoc, Glenn, Lassen, Del Norte, San Benito — have below-average vaccination rates.
That doesn’t mean the vaccines don’t work — rates for infection and hospitalization remain vastly higher among the unvaccinated. So what’s going on? Experts point to two things: the extraordinary ease with which the virus’ now-dominant delta strain spreads, and the fact that no vaccine offers impenetrable protection.
“I am not so surprised that transmission rates are not neatly tracking immunization rates,” said Dr. Stephen Luby, a medical professor specializing in infectious diseases at Stanford University.
“There are a number of issues that contribute to transmission,” Luby said. “In high density urban settings, for example, even with a higher level of vaccine coverage, there can still be a lot of exposure to unvaccinated folks and potentially to folks who are vaccinated but are asymptomatically shedding the delta variant.”
The soaring case rates spurred action and pleas this past week from public health officials in the Bay Area and politicians in some of the most vaccine-resistant parts of the country. Health officials in Santa Clara, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties urged employers to require vaccinations for all workers. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell implored the unvaccinated to get their shots and ignore “demonstrably bad advice,” while the Republican governor of Alabama — the least-vaccinated state in the country — said “it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the virus’s continued surge.
The delta variant, which devastated India in the spring, is highly contagious and has since spread globally and throughout the U.S. and California where it accounted for 82.8% of sequenced viral specimens as of Wednesday, up from 48.8% a month earlier.
There have been mixed reports about the vaccines’ effectiveness against the variant, most of which indicate they still offer broad protection, and case rates show the fully vaccinated remain well protected.
The California Department of Public Health reported Friday that between January 1 and July 14, 99% of the state’s cumulative cases have been among unvaccinated people. For the week of July 7-14, the average daily case rate per 100,000 among unvaccinated Californians was 13 while the rate for the vaccinated was 2, the CDPH said.
A similar picture emerges locally. In Contra Costa County, which reports case rates by vaccination status, the average rate per 100,000 among the unvaccinated was 27.8 on July 16 — six times the 4.5 rate reported in the vaccinated population. In Sonoma County, the rate was 15.1 among the unvaccinated, and 3.7 for the vaccinated.
But although the vaccines do a good job bolstering the body’s ability to fight infection, they aren’t impenetrable shields. Because vaccinated people are being exposed to higher levels of a more contagious variant circulating in densely populated urban areas, their chances for contracting one of the few vaccine “breakthrough” infections are greater.
“The best, most waterproof raincoat is protective, but not when it’s storming outside or you’re in the middle of a hurricane,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco.
She and Luby added that some vaccinated people may be spreading the virus without knowing they have it while their bodies fight it off.
And since California’s June 15 reopening, when the state retired its face mask mandate and color-coded system of pandemic restrictions based on case rates, people have been venturing out more without masks to stores, restaurants and events that no longer have pandemic crowd limits. Although many people still use masks in places like the Bay Area, that can only do so much.
“It’s definitely depressing to see how quickly things turned,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “But the threat of the virus has always been there. Delta is a highly transmissible variant, something we have to respect. Even with some of the masking, we’re moving around a lot, we’re going along with our usual patterns of behavior. Put those together and you can quickly see, even though we’re wearing masks, we have vaccination, there’s no margin for error any more.”
While vaccination levels are relatively high in California and the big cities where the virus is spreading, there still are many who haven’t had or can’t get the shots.
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California’s 61.1% vaccination rate of those 12 and older compares favorably to the 55.3% in Florida and 53% in Texas, and isn’t far behind New York’s 65.4%. But many, including kids under 12 and people with medical issues, can’t get the shots. Just over half California’s nearly 40 million people — 52.1% — are fully immunized.
“Once you put in the full population denominator, it’s not as high as we think,” Bibbins-Domingo said.
The rapidly worsening pandemic picture — coming at a time when many hoped the virus would be a fading memory — has led many health experts to call on federal and state authorities to reverse course and impose more face mask requirements and restrictions.
Both the CDC and California Department of Public Health have maintained that the answer remains simply getting more people vaccinated. But resistance among some people will be hard to overcome.
For now, many local health officials have been stepping in, urging people to resume wearing masks indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, regardless of vaccination, and employers to require that their workers get the shots. Some businesses, including San Francisco bar owners, are considering requiring their customers provide proof of vaccination, fearing a return of the pandemic restrictions that closed them down entirely.
Health experts like Bibbins-Domingo support all of that, and sympathize with the messaging dilemma facing public health officials.
“The challenge in public health communication is we ultimately do want more people to be vaccinated,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “And the concern is communicating that we also need to wear a mask right now will then dilute the message that we need to be vaccinated. The challenge is that both things are true.”