Berkeley to loosen mask mandate for vaccinated people in limited settings

Offices, gyms and more could soon drop face-covering requirements — but only if they follow strict guidelines.

A bus stop poster urging people to wear their masks while a pedestrian walks down Durant St. Sept. 8, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Offices, gyms, houses of worship and more in Berkeley will soon have the option to drop requirements that people wear masks, local public health officials said Thursday.

With rates of new COVID-19 infections subsiding from a summer wave driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, authorities from the city of Berkeley and Alameda County announced new masking rules that will take effect Nov. 1.

Everyone will still need to keep wearing a face covering in grocery stores, restaurants, public transportation and most public indoor spaces.

But the new rules relax those requirements in certain other locations — namely offices, gyms, fitness centers, employee commuter vehicles, religious services and “other organized gatherings of individuals who meet regularly.”

To be eligible, hosts will have to take a number of steps to ensure those locations represent “controlled settings,” officials said. The locations can’t be open to the general public, and hosts will have to verify everyone’s vaccination status at entry; unvaccinated people can’t be part of the gathering, nor can anyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Access must be limited “to the same, regularly gathering group,” which cannot be larger than 100 guests, and hosts will have to keep a list of everyone who attended the gathering, including when they arrived and left.

Those who don’t want to bother with the requirements, or aren’t comfortable with mask-free gatherings, can choose to continue requiring face coverings.

“Vaccinations and face coverings protected our community and the region as a whole from the worst that the Delta variant inflicted elsewhere,” Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said in a statement Thursday. “With that success, we now have some spaces where hosts can choose whether their guests must mask.”

The move to continue to require masks in most settings echoes health orders in San Francisco, which announced a similar relaxation of mask requirements as of Oct. 15, as well as Sonoma, Marin and Contra Costa counties.

Continuing to require masks at indoor restaurants and bars — where people can remove face coverings to eat or drink and, in Berkeley, all patrons must be fully vaccinated — is perplexing to many. But according to health officials in the Bay Area and beyond, the places where the mask mandate is easing are all “stable cohorts,” that is places without free-flowing traffic where anyone may enter or exit as they please. It’s thinking that reflects the “pods” and “social bubbles” discussed earlier in the pandemic: As bars, restaurants and retail rely on the free flow of unrelated people, health officials say that for now, it’s safer to require masking to continue.

Alameda County has not yet met the criteria Bay Area authorities laid out earlier this month that would allow businesses to drop mask mandates altogether — though it could be getting close.

To end masking requirements, the county would need to stay in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moderate tier for at least three weeks, and have at least 80% of its total population fully vaccinated. Of Alameda County’s 1.67 million residents, 71% are fully vaccinated while 76% have at least one shot; with federal regulators on the verge of allowing children between 5 and 11 to get vaccinated, those rates could tip past 80% in the coming weeks.

The county now ranks in the CDC’s yellow, or “moderate,” tier for COVID-19 transmission. Case rates in Berkeley are even lower, with the city averaging 3.6 per 100,000 residents per day over the past week, and a test positivity rate of less than half a percent.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.
Eve Batey is the Editor of East Bay Nosh Email: eve@eastbaynosh.org. Twitter: eveb.