Fully vaccinated restaurant patrons are allowed to remain unmasked, but health experts warn that folks without face coverings face increased risks. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The East Bay’s COVID-19 case rate is the worst it’s been in months, prompting experts to suggest that diners — at the very least — mask back up

For a bit more than a month, fully vaccinated visitors to East Bay restaurants have enjoyed the option to go completely maskless, walking through most dining rooms and taking their seats with completely uncovered faces. But as COVID-19 rates continue to climb, health experts warn that we’re now facing conditions similar to some of the worst days of the pandemic — days during which we wouldn’t have been allowed to dine indoors at all.

According to research from the Bay Area News Group, if we were still living in California’s pre-June 15 days of its color-coded reopening plan, counties including Alameda and Contra Costa would have dropped all the way back into the purple tier, the one in which restrictions were the most severe. Areas in the purple tier were forced to shutter all indoor dining and drinking and to move back to an outdoor and takeout-only model. Bars without food were required to close down completely in the purple tier, including any outdoor service. 

As you of course know, that’s not where things stand today. Since June 15, all of California’s businesses have been open without restrictions, and fully vaccinated people have not been required to cover their faces indoors unless a business, itself, requires it. (Unvaccinated people have been required to remain masked, though most bars and restaurants — with a couple notable exceptions — operate on an “honor system” when it comes to confirming vaccination status.) “We’ve all forgotten about the tier system because we wanted to,” Dr. John Swartzberg told BANG. He’s the clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s school of public health, and he’s worried about the region’s rush to reopen. “We’re not in a very good place compared to where we were a month ago.”

Though a joint announcement on Friday between health officers from across the Bay Area “strongly urged” everyone (vaccinated or not) to wear masks indoors, no official mandates have been put in place at the state or local level when it comes to social distancing, face coverings or activity restriction. And now, some health experts are saying that the rising ubiquity of the delta variant might pose a threat even to vaccinated folks.

Speaking with the SF Chronicle, UCSF school of medicine chair Dr. Bob Wachter said that “long COVID” — the lingering health problems associated with even mild cases of the novel coronavirus — have prompted him to take stricter precautions. Wachter and Swartzberg both said they’re not certain if fully vaccinated people are vulnerable to long COVID, saying that data on the delta variant’s impact is insufficient at this point. 

Stanford infectious disease expert Robert Siegel told the Chron that when it comes to indoor dining and drinking, where simple safeguards like a mask are impossible, “the level of risk is changing right now because of the fact that there’s a more contagious variant and more virus in the air.” That means, Swartzberg says, that unvaccinated people — including kids under 12, who have yet to be approved for vaccination — should skip indoor dining for now. “If you have a child who can’t be vaccinated, you have to be doing the kinds of things you were doing before we had the vaccines: being careful,” he said. 

But what about the rest of us, the fully-vaccinated folks who assumed that by now, life would be as close to normal as it could be? “If you’re in a crowded 40-seat restaurant where no one is masked, it’s possible a couple of fully vaccinated people still get infected,” the Chron reports. So there is a risk of infection, even for folks who got the shot. The solution, experts say, is to remain masked as you walk through the restaurant — or better yet, enjoy your meal outdoors, where infection risks seem to be minimal.

From left: Jameelah Lane, Daniel Harris-Lucas, Yolanda Romo and Erin Higginbotham, worker-owners of DEEP Grocery. Credit: Andria Lo

Worker-owned supermarket DEEP Grocery is suspending operations at the end of the month

A popular standby at East Oakland’s Akoma Market, the DEEP Grocery Co-op (Deep East Oakland Empowering the People) launched an online food market in April with a mission to provide underserved areas of East Oakland with organic and locally grown produce. The plan was, DEEP said at the time, to find a brick-and-mortar space for the store, a place shoppers could pick up food and gather as a community.

Speaking with The Oaklandside at the time of the shop’s launch, DEEP founding member Erin Higginbotham said that the collective believed that “there’s an overall interest in folks who want to help support a service like ours, versus the big-name retailers.” That support is evident in the responses to an Instagram announcement from DEEP this week saying that the service would suspend operations as of July 31.

The co-op’s members are still committed to bringing the community “its first worker-owned grocery store,” DEEP said, adding in a caption that “This is not the end! We are going to come back better and stronger for our community.” Many responses included hashtags like #customerforlife and #comebackstronger, with promises to patronize whatever service the group offers next. DEEP’s online grocery remains available until the end of the month, with delivery for Oakland residents and pickup available during select hours (see them here) at San Leandro’s Dig Deep Farms.

A Berkeley student is attempting to support beloved bakery Vital Vittles with a fundraiser to feed school district families. Credit: Amalya Dubrovsky

A 14-year-old’s fundraiser to feed Berkeley Unified School District families is almost at its goal

Berkeley High School student Anjani Chokkalingam only wants $3,000. But not for whatever kids spend their money on these days (items advertised on TikTok?), but to purchase products from a Berkeley mill and bakery to feed her classmates’s families.

Chokkalingam launched a GoFundMe earlier this month, seeking the money to buy $500 worth of goods per week from Berkeley bread destination Vital Vittles. The goal is two-fold, Chokkalingam says, as the bakery’s owner recently told her that “business has been slower lately due to the pandemic, and they weren’t sure how long the bakery would last.” As she mulled how to support Vital Vittles (“their bread and muffins are a staple in my family — we love all of their products, and I know many Berkeley families do too,” she said), she got in touch with BUSD nutrition services director Bonnie Christensen and BUSD sous chef Ric Keeley. 

With their support, she returned to Vital Vittles with a plan: She’d raise money and donate it to BUSD, which will then spend it at Vital Vittles for foods to add to the school system’s summertime Grab and Go Meals, 600 of which are distributed weekly to families in need. 

The $3,000 will go a long way, Chokkalingam says, as “$500 dollars will buy around 800 rolls (at the retail price, so that Vital Vittles can turn a profit).” The fundraiser launched last week and has already generated over $2,100 in donations. If you’re interested in donating, the GoFundMe is here.