Santa Clara County and seven other Bay Area counties have issued a new health order requiring masks indoors in public places. The mandate applies to everyone regardless of vaccination status.
Officials announced the health order during a news conference on Monday. The order, which takes effect midnight on Tuesday, applies to most public settings, with limited exceptions, in Santa Clara County, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Sonoma and the city of Berkeley.
People in restaurants or bars can remove masks to eat and drink. But masks must remain on inside gyms, movie theaters, hair and nail salons or retailers. In Santa Clara County, businesses are obligated to enforce the mask mandate. Residents can submit complaints about businesses failing to do this on the county website.
Officials said this is a necessary step because the Delta variant is responsible for a significant spike in hospitalizations of unvaccinated individuals. Some vaccinated individuals have also been hospitalized, although those cases are infrequent and tend to be elderly and with significant co-morbidities.
The announcement reflects guidance from both California Department of Public Health and the CDC.
“We wish we weren’t in this place right now having to make this order,” said George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County, on Monday. “But what’s happened is the virus has changed. The Delta variant is now the predominant variant in our area and across the county.”
Han and other officials emphasized that masks are a simple and effective tool to prevent transmission, and they recommended using surgical or medical grade face coverings. They are also encouraging private businesses and local municipalities to require employees to get vaccinated or tested for COVID-19.
“Quite frankly, vaccines are keeping thousands (of people) out of Bay Area hospitals and morgues right now,” said Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer.
Santa Clara County did not have data on the percentage of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 who are vaccinated.
But Han said the vast majority of cases involve unvaccinated individuals, which is a trend common to other Bay Area counties. Naveena Bobba, deputy director of health for San Francisco, said the rate of hospitalizations for the fully vaccinated in her city is 9.3 out of 1,000 cases. For the unvaccinated, it’s 72 out of 1,000. Fully vaccinated patients account for just 0.5 percent of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in San Francisco.
San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said he favors the county’s new mask mandate. He noted that as the Delta variant spreads, every precaution is needed.
“I am supportive of any mask mandates and recommendations that are going to reduce or prevent the spread of COVID,” Jones said.
Jones said he anticipates some pushback, but he said public compliance with previous mask mandates in the Bay Area and Santa Clara County is encouraging.
“You see a lot more mask compliance here than you do in other places,” he said.
Derrick Seaver, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Organization, said it’s hard to tell how much this specific mandate will impact local businesses, many which are still struggling. He said there is a fear mask mandates might have “a chilling effect” on customers who frequent small businesses that are still struggling to recover.
“We are still seeing a very uneven recovery,” Seaver said. “Some of our small business members are still at 25% to 50% of pre-pandemic revenue.”
Eric Johnson, co-owner of Recycle Bookstore near downtown, said his store started mandating masks a couple of weeks ago — even without the new mandate.
“We ordered a few masks to sell to people because they got used to not wearing masks for a short while,” Johnson said. “But it’s not that big of a change. We’re a bookstore, so most of the people who come in are fairly reasonable human beings. The only thing that has happened is that we’ve had a visit by a few anti-maskers during so-called civil disobedience.”
As of Friday, 123,404 Santa Clara County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,709 have died.
The county revised its death count earlier this month, reducing the number of total fatalities by 22 percent. About 84% of residents in Santa Clara County age 12+ have received at least one dose of the vaccine and about 78% of residents are fully vaccinated, data shows.
Health officials cautioned that previous projections about achieving herd immunity once 70% to 80% of the population is vaccinated underestimated the real threshold.
“Unfortunately, the Delta virus has taught us that those levels are far from sufficient,” said Chris Farnitano, a health official with Contra Costa County. “We have communities that have vaccination rates that well exceed that, but the virus is spreading, and spreading rapidly.”
Santa Clara County has one of the highest rates of vaccination in California, but new infections are increasing. In early July, the rolling seven-day average for positive infections stood at 31. As of July 30, the weekly rolling average was at 202.
The county has been offering various incentives—including meeting professional athletes and gift cards—to persuade people to get vaccines. It also recently required all of its employees to be vaccinated.