February 16, 2022
By Benicia’s Dr. Richard Fleming
(Nextdoor post, reprinted here with permission)
On February 15, our city council voted to lift the indoor mask mandate by a vote of 4-1.
While their vote was not surprising, it was disappointing.
With 8 of the 9 Bay Area counties lifting county-wide masking orders, it would have been a stretch for Benicia’s city leaders to continue the local mandate.
In written and public comments, the main point I tried to make is that if one looks objectively at Benicia’s and Solano County’s numbers, we are far behind the rest of the Bay Area. Our cases are much higher. Our hospitalization rate is mid-range, but has increased since the city council last discussed the mandate in mid-January.
And, most concerning, our vaccination rate is significantly lower than the rest of the Bay Area. Excellent data shows that 3 shots are needed (or 2 shots, if the first is J&J) for optimal protection. Currently 43.2% of Benicia residents are optimally vaccinated. The other Bay Area counties have much higher vaccination rates.
The public comment period during the meeting was spirited, and many people called for the mandate to end. While I understand people’s frustration, the reasons people calling in gave for ending the mandate did not address our current situation with the pandemic. The reasons callers brought up included: masks don’t work, they are dangerous to your health, they are divisive, they are political, they have turned Benicia into a hateful angry town, they are a product of irrational fear, few people in the rest of the country wear masks and they are all doing just fine, and masks are hard on children.
Callers said mandates are unconstitutional and people should have the individual right to do what they want.
Since none of these comments addressed where the pandemic currently stands, they would have been equally applicable a year ago.
Leaving aside the question of children, there are rational opposing views to each of these statements, based on both scientific study and U.S. judicial history, but I will not revisit those here.
Specifically on the issue of children, I think a valid case can be made that children should no longer be required to wear masks. At the same time, there is little doubt that mask-wearing by children has helped save many teachers and grandparents from getting sick. But at this point, with numbers improving, it is probably time to for children to take their masks off.
Vice Mayor Tom Campbell was the lone vote to continue the mandate. He pointed to the hundreds of medical studies which confirm the effectiveness of masking. He also referred to the fact that our numbers do not yet support lifting this safety measure, though hopefully our numbers will be better soon.
Bottom line, I think the council lifted the mask mandate a bit prematurely. I think our numbers would improve more quickly had it been left in place, but hopefully they will continue to improve anyway. We in Benicia are substantially protected by what the rest of the Bay Area is doing, since we are not a walled-off island. And the fact the rest of the Bay Area has vaccinated such a high proportion of its population and succeeded in quashing the virus more effectively than we have will help things here in Benicia.
Ultimately, the two best things we can each do are get vaccinated and boosted, and to understand that actions we each take can have an impact on others. We live in a community, and we each have freedoms, but freedoms come with responsibilities towards others.