Various senior and disability advocates came together to demand the city bring back a full mask mandate to city-owned facilities. Credit: Jose Fermoso

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Protesters used an unusually merry tactic outside Oakland City Hall Tuesday to draw attention to their cause: singing Christmas carols with lyrics demanding the city reinstate its mask mandate inside city-owned buildings. 

Senior and disability advocates sing carols in front of Oakland’s City Hall, protesting against a recent drawdown of mask mandates inside city facilities.

The protest was organized by Senior and Disability Action, a Bay Area nonprofit that advocates for seniors and disabled people’s rights, and recently has been protesting to draw attention to traffic safety issues in Oakland. Mayor Libby Schaaf ended the nearly three-year-old mask mandate for city employees and visitors inside municipal buildings, including libraries, on Nov. 28.

Last Friday, Schaaf directed City Administrator Ed Reiskin to “allow department heads to reinstate the mask requirement at their discretion,” according to Justin Berton, a spokesperson for the mayor. That decision was based on Alameda County COVID guidelines and rising COVID admissions at local hospitals, which have led the CDC to move the county from a “low” to “medium” community risk level. Homeless and emergency shelters as well as medical and other public health facilities still enforce the mask mandate locally. 

But advocates say the mayor’s discretionary mandate is not enough and is confusing.

In a letter submitted to Schaaf’s office before the protest, members of Senior and Disability Action, which is part of a larger public health advocacy coalition named Masks for Equity, said they were acting in the best interest of immunocompromised residents, who’ve expressed concerns about rising COVID rates. 

“They share how increasingly inaccessible and unsafe it is to navigate daily life, whether that be riding public transit, going to the grocery store, stopping by the post office, or entering city offices,” the letter stated. “This contributes to a much larger issue of marginalization, and many community members feel isolated without safeguards like masking.” 

According to Bay Area public health agencies, local communities are seeing spikes in COVID transmission rates as well as sickness from the flu virus. With more positive tests going unreported to the county due to at-home testing, and fewer available testing sites in recent weeks, counties are using wastewater treatment facilities to predict the rise of COVID infections. 

At the protest, staff from Oakland’s at-Large City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s office announced that the City Council will consider a resolution at its next meeting on Dec. 20 to restore the “masking requirement inside City facilities and requiring the administration to provide quality masks to people at city facilities.” The resolution is being backed by Kaplan and District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, who also attended the protest. 

In the last few days, Kaplan has been sharing news reports on social media about the extent of the current COVID surge, including analyses from medical experts about the effectiveness of masks for reducing COVID infections. 

At the protest, Kalb said he was shocked that the mask mandate was removed and that he appreciated that many people were not accepting the change. 

“New variants come out every few months. While we recommend everyone gets their shots, masking is still a smart thing to do. The CDC says this, the county health department says this, and City Hall should say this too,” Kalb said.

Senior and Disability Action members at the protest told The Oaklandside that ending the mandate sends the wrong signal to members of the public: that the pandemic is over, when it isn’t. 

Raia Small, a staff member at Senior and Disability Action, told The Oaklandside that she is especially worried about low-income workers who are required to be in public buildings all day. 

“Anyone who can’t afford to get COVID is especially at risk,” she said, noting that people like librarians are inside all day and work with other at-risk populations.  

Small said the group decided to protest by caroling because it was a fun way to highlight the safety provided by wearing a mask. 

Ruth Robertson from the Raging Grannies Action League attended the protest Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Ruth Robertson from the Raging Grannies Action League, a Peninsula-based advocacy group that usually supports union causes and sings together, also attended the protest. She said her group is in solidarity with anyone who wants to keep wearing masks to protect vulnerable populations. She noted that singing carols while wearing a mask and “dressing cute” makes people pay attention to the message.

“Singers can lift up messages for people who don’t have a voice and can’t be here,” she said. 

Robertson noted that singer Anne Feeney, a noted 60s folk singer, was an inspiration to the Raging Grannies. Feeney had also sung at actions calling for solidarity around COVID safety, up until she herself contracted the virus in the first year of the pandemic and died a month before vaccines were distributed. Feeney even sang with the Raging Grannies a couple of times at union actions, Robertson said.

Maya Scott Chung, a frequent attendee at Senior and Disability Action protests, said she had lost close friends to COVID. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Maya Scott Chung, a public health advocate and a leader with Disability Justice League Bay Area was also in attendance and agreed with Robertson that the public has a right to push politicians for broad changes if they hurt people who are most at-risk. 

“Continued care and organization around masking and other types of support are necessary during this surge,” she said. Scott Chung said she got COVID in September and that due to her family’s history of heart conditions, she has been very concerned about the long-term effects it could have on her health. 

Some of the protesters said they’ve already lost people to COVID who were close to them. Scott Chung’s stepmother, for example, worked at a nursing facility in Washington D.C. and lost her life shortly after contracting the virus, she told us. Seeing the rising rates of COVID and the public’s increasingly relaxed behavior around it, Scott Chung said she’s thought often about advocate Mother Jones’ famous refrain about continuing to fight in the face of a continuing public crisis. 

“She said ‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.’ This is a prolonged situation and we’ll continue doing that.” 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.