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Facing respiratory virus surge, Bay Area communities weigh mask mandates

Bay Area communities weigh renewed mask mandates
Bay Area communities weigh renewed mask mandates 03:38

ALAMEDA -- Beth Kenny frequently finds herself taking walks through parks in Alameda. It's a way for her to check out and get out.

"The beautiful trees, the wonderful playground for my child, it just feels very peaceful," she said.

A sense of peace. Important during a turbulent few years.

"We're limited to outdoor places," she said. "So, I'm very thankful for the beautiful parks here in Alameda."

Kenny is immunocompromised and at high risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19 and she's concerned as well about long COVID.

While most people have resumed life as it was pre-pandemic, she hasn't. She still gets groceries delivered and doesn't go out much.

With COVID and other respiratory infections on the rise but few masking requirements in place for public spaces, she feels left behind.

"I want masks to come back so that our health is protected and we do it in a way that is equitable to all," she said. "I would like to see them come back in our schools. I would like to see them come back in our public buildings. I would like them to come back in all of our indoor settings."

She says the lack of masking and other safety precautions has made the world less accessible for her and those who are immunocompromised.

"It would drastically change my day-to-day life," she said. "I am fortunate that I can work from home. A lot of people in my situation are not."

Raia Small joined Kenny for a walk in the park this week. She recently spearheaded a rally in Oakland, urging the mayor and city council to re-instate a mask requirement for indoor public buildings.

"While cases are so high, while hospitalizations are rising, while children's -- pediatric -- beds are filling up, it just seems like it's the only thing that's going to quickly curb the spread," Small said. "It's really frustrating to me that, to our leaders, these people's lives and struggles are less important than someone who just doesn't like the feeling of a mask on their face or doesn't want to be reminded that the pandemic is still going on."

Across the Bay Area, there are some individual businesses, institutions, organizations and municipalities bringing back masking requirements in certain settings.

San Jose State University will require masks indoors beginning Dec. 19. Alameda County is bringing masking back to jails, shelters, warming centers and long-term care facilities.

In Oakland, vice mayor Rebecca Kaplan is expected to introduce the idea of bringing back masking requirements for indoor city facilities during next week's council meeting, arguing it will help provide equitable access to public spaces such as libraries for those who are most at-risk.

"COVID is up by all metrics, whether you look at the actual numbers, which is an underestimate given home testing and people not testing. Wastewater, test positivity," said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF. "But to me, being in the hospital, seeing the numbers creep up is definitely compelling."

Dr. Chin-Hong thinks that, on an individual basis, it is a good idea to mask right now.

"The general setting, I'm very enthusiastic about people wearing these masks right now because, although we focus on COVID, there are so many other things going around," he said.

However, his enthusiasm stopped short of mask mandates in most indoor public settings aside from places like hospitals and other environments filled with vulnerable people.

"I don't think we need a mandate, mainly because there are so many things that we can do," he said. "Even if someone becomes positive and they're high risk, I can give them Paxlovid or Remdesivir to keep them from going to the hospital."

Despite her hope, Kenny doesn't have much faith the masking situation in most shared indoor public spaces will change any time soon.

"I don't think that a universal mask mandate is coming. I think it should come but I think we've had a significant lack of leadership. I don't see that changing, unfortunately," she said. "I'm scared at how bad it might have to get before that changes."

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