Berkeley’s mask mandate ends, but many keep their face coverings on

While some are eager to get back to daily life without a face covering, we found masks are still the norm throughout much of Berkeley.

Pegasus Books’ three Berkeley and Oakland locations still require all customers to wear masks. Health officials lifted Berkeley’s city-wide mask mandate on Wednesday, leaving it up to businesses and institutions to decide whether to require face coverings. Credit: Nico Savidge

The public health order that for more than six months has required everyone to mask up in Berkeley’s public indoor spaces ended Wednesday — but masks were still the norm throughout much of the city as many residents said they were not yet comfortable leaving them behind.

A handful of people browsed the aisles without face coverings at Berkeley Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods stores Wednesday morning. In the afternoon, one unmasked person scaled a rock climbing wall at Berkeley IronWorks, while others did hard-breathing cardio workouts without them.

“I’m certainly happy about it,” said Madison Okane, who worked mask-free at the front desk of another gym, Equinox Berkeley.

In other settings, though, just about everyone kept their masks on — whether it was for their own comfort or because businesses continued to require them. While Wednesday marked the end of government-imposed mask mandates for vaccinated people throughout much of the Bay Area and California, individual businesses and institutions can decide for themselves whether to continue requiring face coverings.

Masks are still mandatory for visitors to city hall and Berkeley’s libraries, as well as other indoor city facilities, spokesman Matthai Chakko said. Many local businesses, including Berkeley Bowl, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the three locations of Pegasus Books, are doing the same. Separate regulations also require face coverings in schools, congregate facilities such as homeless shelters, public transit and some other settings.

UC Berkeley plans to keep its face covering requirement in place for now, before ending it on Feb. 28.

“The masks are our best strategy for not spreading (COVID-19), so it just feels like the responsible thing to do,” said Marjorie Darraugh, manager of Pegasus’ Solano Avenue outpost. Several customers requested the store keep its requirement in place, said Darraugh, who also cited the number of young children and older adults who shop at the store as reasons for continuing to ask everyone to mask up.

The end of the city-wide mandate comes as Berkeley has seen a steep decline in COVID-19 cases since the peak of a winter surge driven by the highly contagious omicron variant — although case rates remain higher than at any point before the latest wave. As of Wednesday, the city’s seven-day average of new cases stood at 66.7 per 100,000 residents, well below the peak of 171.3 in mid-January and double the pre-omicron high of 32.4 in early 2021. Test positivity rates have fallen more dramatically and currently stand at 2.9%, lower than during previous waves.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Alameda County a “high transmission” area, a classification it shares with the vast majority of the country, and recommends everyone wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. Berkeley health officials echoed that recommendation last week even as they announced plans to rescind the mask requirement, writing in a statement that “the safest choice is to continue to mask indoors – especially in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces.”

Mark Frazier, who wore a mask as he worked Wednesday at Sports Basement, said he is waiting for the virus to become less prevalent after several of his friends caught COVID-19 during the omicron wave.

“I’m going to probably give it another month or so and see what else happens,” Frazier said, “and until then, I’m just going to be a little bit more cautious.”

Physician Nathalie Boittin said she plans to keep masking “for the foreseeable future” because she works with vulnerable patients and has two young children who are ineligible for vaccines, one of whom recently caught COVID-19.

And at Raxakoul Coffee and Cheese on Hopkins Street, owner Pete Raxakoul said he and his employees would continue to wear face coverings, and prefer that customers do the same. But Raxakoul also said he wouldn’t make masks mandatory for customers, in part to avoid confrontations with the occasional shopper who doesn’t want to wear one.

“I don’t want to fight with people,” he said.

The uncertainty with which many residents and public officials are approaching the end of the mask mandate stands in sharp contrast to the previous effort to lift those requirements last summer. Back then, Gov. Gavin Newsom promoted the end of statewide face covering rules, capacity limits and other pandemic restrictions with a celebratory press conference at a theme park, complete with costumed characters and showering confetti. The message then was that society had turned the corner on the pandemic, and California had “fully reopened.”

Eight months and two variant-driven surges later, those hopes for a straightforward end to the pandemic seem to be dashed. Instead, Bay Area health leaders have said the end of mask mandates is part of a turning point toward a future in which the region’s high vaccination rates mean the coronavirus poses less of a threat, writing in a statement last week that most people can move “toward a ‘new normal’ of living with the disease.”

Some see that shift as long overdue, especially in an area like Berkeley, where more than 90% of residents are vaccinated. To others, though, it feels like that change is being made too soon.

“We’re beginning to understand that this is a long haul, and that it’s going to take a lot of different forms before it just settles down to what we understand as like flu seasons,” said Darraught, the Pegasus Books manager. “I think that will come – I don’t think we’re there yet, that’s the thing.”

Staff reporters Emilie Raguso, Ally Markovich and Eve Batey contributed to this report.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.