COVID-19 safety notice
Many public buildings and businesses still require people to wear masks inside, and county health officials are encouraging the practice as the Delta variant spreads. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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Alameda County will drop its requirement that vaccinated people wear masks in most public indoor spaces on Feb. 16, health officials announced Wednesday, joining nearly all of the Bay Area and the state as a whole in ending face-covering mandates next week.

City leaders in Berkeley noted businesses will have the option to require customers to mask up, and they cautioned that continuing to wear a face covering indoors is still “strongly recommended” as this winter’s wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, continues to recede.

“The safest choice is to continue to mask indoors – especially in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces,” officials wrote in a city of Berkeley statement. “Masking also protects the medically vulnerable or those unable to get vaccinated, like our youngest children.”

In Oakland, city employees and visitors to indoor city-owned facilities will still be required to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status, according to Communications Director Karen Boyd.

Oakland’s proof of vaccination ordinance will also remain in effect, she said, until the City Administrator lifts the local emergency declaration that was issued in March 2020.

Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week announced his plan to drop California’s requirement that everyone wear a mask indoors, regardless of their vaccination status, next Wednesday. That led to questions about whether Bay Area governments, which moved faster than the state to reimpose face-covering requirements last summer, would follow suit.

The answer arrived Wednesday morning, with a statement from 10 greater Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley that they will join the state in ending their mandates for those who are vaccinated next week. Santa Clara County was the only local jurisdiction that didn’t sign on to the joint statement; the San Jose Mercury News reported it will continue to require masks.

Unvaccinated people over age 2 will still be required to mask up in all public indoor settings under the new rules.

And mask requirements will remain in place for everyone at schools and childcare facilities, health care settings, congregate facilities such as homeless shelters, and while aboard public transportation, among other locations. State officials have indicated they plan to announce new rules for masks in public schools sometime in the coming weeks.

Businesses could stick with masks for now

Because businesses will be allowed to set their own mask policies, it remains unclear how different life around Berkeley or Oakland will look once the mandate expires.

Market Hall Foods, the grocery store and prepared foods vendor with locations in Berkeley and Oakland, will require all patrons and workers to remain masked for the foreseeable future, retail director Juliana Uruburu said. 

“The CDC still recommends that people wear masks indoors, so that’s the guidance we will continue to follow,” she said, noting that because Market Hall isn’t a restaurant, it doesn’t check patrons for vaccination status. Market Hall also reinstated capacity limits when omicron variant cases spiked in the Bay Area late last year.

“Our first step would be to end capacity limits,” Uruburu said. “I wish I could forecast when we’ll drop masks, but it won’t be for a while.”

After this article was published, Market Hall program managers had a meeting and agreed that as of Feb. 16, their grocery stores “would no longer have door monitors,” Uruburu said in a 2 p.m. call to Berkeleyside. The removal of those monitors will effectively lift its capacity caps; but all Market Hall properties will continue to require masks for all patrons indoors.

Berkeley Bowl, the popular grocery store with two Berkeley locations, has yet to make a decision on masks for patrons and workers. Chi Dixon, the grocery stores’ project manager, said that its executive management team will meet this week to discuss today’s announcement. “We have such a high volume of customers, so we’re not quite sure yet,” Dixon said. “We want to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our customers and workers.”

Representatives from Safeway, Monterey Market, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods did not immediately respond Wednesday morning to questions from Berkeleyside about their plans.

‘New normal’ for COVID?

Alameda County experienced a steep spike in COVID cases in January, peaking mid-month. And while the number of new coronavirus cases has fallen dramatically since then, they remain high relative to other times during the pandemic. Other parts of the Bay Area, and regions of the country that experienced earlier waves, have seen similar declines.

Those high case rates did not translate to a crush of demand on local hospitals, however, which public health officials credited to the region’s high vaccination and booster rates. In Berkeley, just 15 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized since the start of December, the city’s dashboard shows; Alameda County officials wrote in a statement that demand “never exceeded” local hospitals’ capacity, and hospitalizations overall are in decline.

In their joint statement, the 11 Bay Area health officers said the omicron wave marked the start of “a new stage of the pandemic,” where the region could see large numbers of people testing positive for coronavirus but few falling seriously ill or dying.

The end of mask mandates, they wrote, is “part of a population-level shift toward a ‘new normal’ of living with the disease.” They tempered that message, though, with a recognition that “essential workers and communities of color continue to be highly impacted by COVID-19 and will need additional support to limit widening health disparities.”

The statement also acknowledged an emerging divide between residents who are not yet comfortable going maskless as cases remain high, and those who are ready to drop the pandemic precautions they have been taking for nearly two years.

“People can continue to choose to wear face coverings around others whether it’s mandated or not and should respect people’s choices around their health. Community members who are vaccinated and choose not to mask should respect the choices of those who continue to mask,” the joint statement read. “Officials ask residents and visitors to be kind and respectful as people evaluate their risks and make choices to protect themselves and those around them.”

Jacob Simas contributed to this report. The article was updated on Feb. 14, 2022.

Nico Savidge

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then, he has covered transportation, law enforcement, education and college sports for the San Jose Mercury News, EdSource, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Janesville Gazette and The Daily Cardinal. A graduate of Berkeley High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he now lives in Oakland with his wife and dog.