Benicia council to determine mask mandate policy

Possible Sept. 14 vote in Vallejo

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Richard Freedman, August 21, 2021
Women wear masks as they talk on a bench outside of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Benicia on Friday. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
Women wear masks as they talk on a bench outside of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Benicia on Friday. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

The Benicia City Council is expected to re-instate mask mandates — vaccinated or not — for entering businesses in a vote of its five members at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Despite an increase in COVID cases traced to the Delta variant, Solano County has not joined other Bay Area counties in requiring masks for all. Current protocols dictate those who have been vaccinated don’t need to mask up while those who aren’t vaccinated are asked to mask.

“The fact the county is not going to have one (mask mandate for all) puts the pressure on cities like Benicia to act on our own,” said Mayor Steve Young by phone Friday.

Young said Dr. Bela Matyas, Solano County Public Health Director, is expected to “testify” either in person or by phone during the upcoming Benicia council meeting.

Bay Area ‘smoke ceiling’ should begin clearing Saturday, but haze will linger, forecasters say

Benicia Mayor Steve Young

“We have eight different (county) public health directors determining a mask mandate is necessary and he’s taken the opposite direction,” Young said.

In Vallejo, it’s status quo, said Vice Mayor Rozzana Verder-Aliga, vacationing this week in Hawaii.

“The city council is not considering mask mandates at this time although I have received an email request from a council member to put it on the agenda,” Verder-Aliga said. “My opinion is to follow Solano County COVID-19 safety guidelines for now. I personally wear masks at indoor events and at my office per Solano County protocols. I am fully vaccinated as well as my entire family and plan to take booster shots when available.”

Verder-Aliga’s advice to Vallejo residents “is to get vaccinated and follow CDC COVID-19 guidelines.”

Though Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell was unavailable for comment, Interim Vallejo City Manager Anne Cardwell said she is “going to broach the topic of mask requirements in public spaces and COVID” at the Vallejo City Council’s Tuesday meeting, according to Christina Lee, Vallejo’s Communications and Public Information Officer.

“If it is to be agendized, we are potentially looking at the Sept. 14th meeting for that item,” Lee said, adding that “with the rise of the Delta variant, the city is requiring masks in all city buildings regardless of vaccination status at this time.”

Young said Benicia’s vaccination rate is second in the county to Rio Vista, “which isn’t surprising because of their retirement community.”

The Benicia mayor contends that with the county’s less restrictive protocols compared to Contra Costa County, “there are people refusing to shop in town. They’ll cross a bridge because they’re not comfortable going into Raley’s or Safeway without a mask mandate.”

A mask mandate “is a better option than leaving it up to the whims of an individual,” Young said. “And a mask mandate is also for the protection of employees. It’s about spreading the virus to each other. For example, employees at Raley’s are exposed to people all day long and if there are people unvaccinated and unmasked, it puts them (the employees) at greater risk.”

Young believes the Benicia City Council will pass a mask mandate, with tighter restrictions for city employees a possible topic for future meetings. Currently, city employees “simply have to fill out a form and send it to HR that attests to their (vaccination) status.”

In the near future, Young said city employees may have to show proof of vaccination with the CDC card.

“I’ve been trying to convince people to get vaccinated over a year now,” Young said. “Certainly, there’s a segment of the community that isn’t going to get vaccinated unless forced to and we’re not talking about a mandate forcing vaccinations.”

Young said his “first obligation as an elected official to protect the health and safety of our community. I see this as a necessary step in that direction.”

If the Benicia City Council passes the mask mandate, businesses will be required to post signs indicating masks must be worn indoors where people congregate like restaurants or in a real estate office lobby.

“If you’re by yourself in an office, you won’t have to wear a mask,” Young said.

People walk along 1st Street in downtown Benicia as they shop on Friday.(Chris Riley/Times-Herald)