Berkeley mayor calls for masking mandate as delta variant spreads

East Bay restaurants and bars have resorted to a patchwork of rules in the absence of official restrictions.

A man working the register at Cedar market wearing a mask and a face shield in May 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

COVID-19 infection rates are again spiking across the U.S., spurred by stalling vaccination rates and the highly infectious delta variant. It’s a situation that has Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín “quite concerned,” and has prompted him to pressure city officials to make indoor mask use a rule for everyone in Berkeley.

“I frankly think, given the rapid transmissibility of the delta variant, that this is the necessary step to take,” Arreguín said. “I’ve been very outspoken about this internally.” Ultimately, however, a mandate is the decision of Berkeley Public Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez, and “I totally support Dr. Hernandez in any decision she makes,” Arreguín said.

The uptick in cases, paired with newly emerging data suggesting even vaccinated people can spread this new variant, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to strongly recommend this week that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — wear masks indoors, a recommendation that was echoed by the state of California on Wednesday. Though the CDC has named Alameda County as one of the country’s areas in which the delta variant is most pervasive, that masking advice remains only a “recommendation” for now, leaving businesses like restaurants and bars to make their own rules.

Earlier this month, it seemed like the region was ahead of the game. On July 16, a coalition of Bay Area health officers, including those from Alameda County and the city of Berkeley, issued a strongly worded announcement saying that everyone should mask up when indoors due to the area’s rapidly increasing case rate. They stopped short of making that advice a mandate, however, which made sense at the time. Back then, the CDC wasn’t suggesting that everyone mask up, and officials were still saying that vaccinated folks were largely protected from infection. That left each business to make its own decisions on how to keep its patrons and staff safe, from requiring proof of vaccination status to asking all patrons to mask up while not actively eating and drinking. 

While officials continue to emphasize that vaccination is the best protection against serious infection, on a press call Tuesday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that “unlike the alpha variant, where we didn’t believe if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the delta variant.” That’s why, in “high transmission areas,” the agency says masks should be worn during any indoor gatherings between households. According to CDC data reported by the SF Chronicle, “the entire Bay Area” is a high transmission area, with Contra Costa and Alameda counties (154 and 129 infections per 100,000 residents, respectively) among the hardest hit.

Of course, the Bay Area isn’t the only place where COVID-19 is rapidly spreading, which is likely why state public health officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón announced Wednesday that all Californians should mask up indoors. “We are recommending masking in indoor public places to slow the spread while we continue efforts to get more Californians vaccinated,” Aragón said in a written statement. Again, just a recommendation, not a requirement.

You’ve likely seen at least one tweet from Dr. Bob Wachter over the past year. He’s the chair of UCSF’s Department of Medicine, and his daily social media observations on the spread of COVID-19 have attracted a six-figure follower base. In an interview with ABC 7 Tuesday, Wachter said that “it’s 100% likely” that every Bay Area county will issue a mask mandate “within a week,” and according to San Francisco officials who spoke to Nosh on the condition of anonymity, both the city and county of San Francisco are planning an announcement “soon.”

Speaking with Nosh, Arreguín said that he “has not been informed” of a coordinated Bay Area mask mandate. Rules like this can be made only by a city or county’s health officer, an arrangement that’s set by state law. However, “in my opinion, we should do it,” he says of a rule requiring mask use indoors. According to Public Information Officer Matthai Chakko, who spoke with Nosh following the publication of this report, “Berkeley does not have a mandate in the works at this time.” (As of publication time, Alameda County’s health department has not responded to Nosh’s request for comment.)

The lack of a state or local restriction frustrates an Oakland restaurant owner who contacted Nosh Tuesday. The restaurateur, who asked to speak anonymously due to fears of Yelp trolling from COVID deniers and anti-vaccination activists, said that they have already experienced pushback from patrons who “don’t believe we have the right to tell them to wear masks … if this were an official rule, that would take the heat off us as the ‘bad cops.’”

That fear of Yelp trolling over restaurant-set rules isn’t unfounded. According to Eater SF, Bay Area restaurants that have publicly announced their own rules around mask use and vaccination requirements have been hit with slews of negative reviews from out-of-towners, many of whom compare the businesses to “Nazi Germany” and employ phrases like “medical apartheid.”

It’s a state of affairs that’s likely to continue, as long as bars and restaurants are forced to make their own health rules in the absence of official mandates from local leaders. If there’s any comfort to be found, it’s that the most vocal opponents of restaurants that make masking and vaccination rules appear to be “people in other states,” says Matt Reagan, the co-owner of Oakland spots Kon-Tiki and Palmetto. Both restaurants announced last week that they would require masks, and will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test as of Aug. 2. “We are feeling good about our decision,” Reagan told Nosh, saying, “I encourage other restaurants to focus on the needs of the stakeholders who are at the table — the staff and the customers — and ignore the people who are not.”

Eve Batey is Berkeleyside's interim Nosh editor. Email: eve@berkeleyside.org.