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Skyrocketing COVID-19 Cases In Oakland Traced To Large Parties, Gatherings At Lake Merritt

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- East Oakland residents are being urged to avoid social gatherings because they are leading to a surge in COVID-19 cases. On Friday, public health officials warn the number of positive COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing there partly due to the large parties and gatherings at Lake Merritt.

The surge has been directly related to parties and social gatherings and, of specific concern, are large gatherings at Lake Merritt, according to the leaders citing data released this week by Roots Community Health Center, which is based in East Oakland.

The health center reported in July that 40 percent of the positive cases in Oakland were due to large gatherings and parties.

They pointed to the numbers in four zip codes representing East Oakland are some of the highest per 100,000 residents in the region.  The zip code 94621 has 1,743 cases per 100,000 residents, 94601 has 1,870 cases per 100,000 residents, 94603 has 1,730 cases per 100,000 residents and 94605 has 689 cases per 100,000 residents.

For weeks now, neighbors who live in the adjacent 94606 zip code around Lake Merritt have been warning the city and county officials about the rowdy parties and illegal vendors who are setting up shop at the lake, which attract even more people.

Neighbors shared cell phone videos with KPIX showing cars completely blocking off Lakeshore Avenue on recent weekends.  They said hundreds of people from as far away as Sacramento came throw block parties. No masks and no social distancing in the large crowds. Most neighbors like Gregory Anderson and his wife Claudia Paredes couldn't even leave their home.

"As a pregnant person, I do not feel comfortable coming out to the lake to even walk our dog during the weekends because it's so packed," said Paredes.

Many neighbors said they are fed up and they feel trapped.

"I don't really come on weekends, I try to come on off times," said Kim Cortigiano who lives near Lake Merritt.

It's like a block party as vendors set up shop hoping to take advantage of the crowds. Johnny Soohoo, who also lives near the lake said, "It's hard to control people. I'm sure it's a concern if there are a lot of people but people are going to do what they're going to do."

"We should all be alarmed by the new data," said councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, whose district includes part of East Oakland.

On Friday afternoon, she and fellow councilmembers, along with health officials, held another press conference at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater, to remind people to not party.  They've done many of these messaging events in recent months, yet parties and COVID-19 cases keep going up.  KPIX asked them if the message is not working, what's the new approach?

"(We) need to be operating with the goals of equity and inclusion," said councilwoman Fortunato Bas.

"I am trying to stay away from the conversation of enforcement because one of the most unsuccessful ways of getting someone to actually change their behaviors over the long term is by forcing them to do something," said councilman Loren Taylor.

Their solution is more education and more messaging to the vendors and party-goers.

"Your education message has not worked. Why don't you educate people by enforcing the rules?  Not picking anyone in particularly," said neighbor Frederick Holland.

"Without that, it's kind of an empty measure when people know 'okay nothing is going to actually happen,'" said another neighbor Gregory Anderson.

Neighbors want a balance of education and enforcement to keep COVID-19 cases down and bring their quality of life back.

"Public officials get out there and admonish and guide and say please 'give the lake a break.'  It's too soft and it's not going to happen," said R.J., who's lived near the lake since 1976.

A city administrator at the press conference said they know the vendors are operating illegally at the lake.  He said they have been educating the vendors what they are doing is wrong.  They will start to issue warnings in the coming days.

Alameda County is expected to reach 10,000 cases of the coronavirus this week, said Dr. Nicholas Moss, interim Alameda County health officer. That number is three times the number on June 1.

New cases are mostly in younger adults, with 65 percent occurring among residents 18 to 50 years old, he said.

African Americans are two times more likely to die from the virus than whites, he said. Latinx residents are more than six times likely to get COVID-19 than whites, Moss said.

He said social gatherings are playing a much larger part than expected. Moss asked residents to wear a face covering even when talking. He urged residents to stay six feet away from each other and stay home until getting the results of a COVID-19 test if a test was done.

"We're tired, we want to socialize," said Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of Roots Community Health Center. "People are clustering together. Please spread out."

She asked residents to think about what the feeling will be like if they catch the virus and must call everyone they have been in contact with.

"It's not just inconvenient it is a challenge to adhere to this guidance," said city councilman Loren Taylor, who also represents part of East Oakland.

But he said we must stay vigilant.

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