Open letter to Benicia City Council, considering amendments to the mandate TONIGHT, Tues. Nov. 16. (See Council Agenda: Instructions for Public Comments are on p. 6. Items 20.E. and 21.A. are on p. 9.)
Dear Mayor Young, Vice Mayor Campbell, and Council Members Strawbridge, Largaespada and Macenski:
I am a Benicia resident writing to urge that, at tonight’s meeting, the City Council extend indefinitely (and probably until at least March 2022) Resolution No. 21-88, which requires that “face coverings be worn in all indoor public settings in the City.”
I am not a public health expert. But it is clear that the evidence demonstrating that masks limit the spread of Covid is overwhelming. It includes a 350,000-person randomized controlled trial, summarized below, that was completed in August. But before diving a bit into such data, the following list of reasons for extending the mandate starts with one very basic consideration:
- Common Sense. Winter is coming, and with it the very strong likelihood of a significant rise in Covid cases and resulting deaths due to more people being indoors and holiday gatherings. We’ve seen this movie before – last winter, to be exact. And we’ve seen other Covid waves caused or exacerbated by relaxing precautions prematurely, even after vaccines were made available. Let’s not repeat such mistakes by weakening or eliminating our mask mandate.
- Europe’s Record-high Cases a Harbinger for California. As recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Europe, including highly vaccinated Western European nations, are seeing skyrocketing cases: According to the director general of the World Health Organization, two million cases last week, which was the highest figure at any point in the pandemic, along with a 10 percent mortality increase.
As Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley infectious disease and public health expert warns us, “Throughout the pandemic, Europe has been a harbinger of things to come to the US, including California and the Bay Area,” he wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “If this pattern holds true (and I suspect it will), we should be very worried. The colder weather (more people inside) and the holidays already make the upcoming winter a precarious time.”
- Look Toward the Future, Not the Past. If, in the final days leading up to the October 24 storm that pummeled the Bay Area, someone had suggested that it would be a good day for a picnic since the past week had been pleasant, we’d look at them askance (to put it mildly). Yet that is somewhat akin to the policy the Council adopted with the best of intentions in August, relying on the past 30 days of transmission rates to determine whether to drop or modify the mask mandate.
I am not suggesting that such a criterion be dropped. It is in fact useful and relevant. However, I urge that it be supplemented by consideration of likely trends and other data. As I’ve noted, such trends point toward a very possible storm of Covid cases, which in turn points toward leaving the mandate in place. Even if this means the Council makes a somewhat subjective assessment of whether or when to modify the mandate, that is what you’ve been elected to do: take account of recent data, yes, but also exercise your good judgment regarding what the future holds. This probably means holding off on revising the mandate until at least March, when winter is behind us, and only if the data and trends suggest doing so.
- Evidence from Across America. As pointed out by Dr. Richard Fleming, who called in to your August meeting, a comparative study in Kansas found that masks help limit Covid’s spread. More specifically, “counties that chose to enforce [a statewide mask] mandate saw their cases decrease. Counties that chose to opt out saw their cases continue to rise…. the findings were consistent with declines in coronavirus cases observed in 15 states and the District of Columbia where masks were mandated, compared with states that didn’t require the face coverings.”
- “Gold Standard” Evidence from Abroad. For the 18 months ending in August 2021, a Stanford/Yale-led team conducted in Bangladesh the largest and most rigorous study of whether masks make a difference in people catching Covid. Involving roughly 350,000 people in 600 villages, it featured research comparing results between carefully selected, demographically similar populations. Some, in the “intervention villages” were encouraged to wear masks and were supplied with them; others – the “control villages” – were not.
The upshot? Despite the fact that fewer than 50 percent of intervention villagers wore masks in public places, Covid infections were 11 percent lower in the intervention areas for the population as a whole and 35 percent lower for those over 60. “We now have evidence from a randomized, controlled trial that mask promotion increases the use of face coverings and prevents the spread of COVID-19,” said Stephen Luby, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford. “This is the gold standard for evaluating public health interventions.”
- Yet More Evidence for Mask Efficacy. I am only scratching the surface of the research indicating that masks prevent Covid. Two of the numerous compilations of relevant data can be found here and here.
- Heed Benicia’s and America’s Health Authorities. As pointed out by the aforementioned Dr. Richard Fleming in a letter to the Times-Herald, Solano County Health Officer and Deputy Director Dr. Bela Matyas has been wrong on face masks in key respects, including his claim that “Our data clearly shows that indoor public spaces are not where the disease spreads.” As Dr. Fleming notes, “[Dr. Matyas] said spread results from private gatherings, so a mask mandate would not help. Yet he has published no data to support that statement.”
Indeed, regarding the mask mandate and other Covid-related matters, Dr. Matyas has been at odds with other Bay Area counties, the State, the CDC, the Napa-Solano Medical Society, numerous other public health authorities and the roughly half-dozen Benicia-based medical and public health personnel who called in to your August meeting in support of the mandate. Going forward, the Council should heed that broad consensus of data-based opinion rather than Dr. Matyas.
- Protect Benicia’s Businesses and Workers. The face mask mandate benefits Benicians by making workplaces and workers safer. In the process, it makes good business sense. One reason the country saw a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September is because of Covid safety concerns, according to this Washington Post piece: “There are likely some delta-induced quits here,” said Daniel Zhao, an economist at Glassdoor, in reference to the coronavirus variant. “Workers are fed up with working conditions and feel unsafe…Quits are high in leisure and hospitality, health services and education,” Zhao noted. “Those are all industries where an increase in covid can make work less safe.”
While masks are by no means the sole solution, the absence of a mandate can be part of the problem.
- Freedom. It’s unfortunate that this bears repeating nearly two years into the pandemic, but I’ll repeat it anyway: Face masks protect not just or mainly the persons wearing them, but the persons with whom they come into contact. In voting to maintain the mandate, the Council will be doing what it can to advance freedom from disease and death. That’s a freedom far more important than from having to wear a simple facial covering.
- In sum, I ask that the Council extend the mandate because common sense, a plethora of data and Benicia’s and the nation’s public health authorities have concluded this:
- Face masks help prevent Covid’s spread.
- Face masks help prevent illness.
- Face masks save lives.
My blog: A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country