With delta cases surging in the bay and across the country, the tide is turning to bring back mask mandates. There’s been a first wave of mask recommendations, with most counties in the Bay Area already recommending masks indoors, as well as across the country, with the CDC updating its guidelines. And now, the Bay is making it official. In a joint statement from a Bay Area coalition, seven counties will specifically be requiring masks indoors, even for fully vaccinated people, effective at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, August 3. Masks are back on for indoor dining and drinking. It’s not recommended. It’s mandatory.
San Francisco vaccination rates have soared to some of the highest in the country, as 84 percent of residents over the age of 12 have gotten at least one dose. But the highly transmissible delta variant is also spreading, with the city reporting 198 new COVID cases per day on a seven day average, and rising hospitalizations that have doubled in the past 10 days and increased by 400 percent in the month of July. Varying by county, but hovering above the 80th percentile, health officials said in a press conference that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are seen in unvaccinated individuals, but reiterated that even fully vaccinated individuals can still get and spread the virus.
If grim news, hopefully this new mandate will at least bring back some clarity, following several weeks of rapidly changing guidelines. Most counties in the Bay Area banded together to put out an indoor mask recommendation on July 16. The CDC caught up with the Bay and updated national guidelines on July 27. Then the California Department of Public Health got in line a day later with a statewide recommendation. In LA county, high case counts prompted a switch to a mandate a couple of weeks ago on July 17. But in San Francisco and the surrounding counties, in the meantime, local restaurants and bars have been left to come up with their own policies.
This Bay Area coalition includes seven of the nine counties in the Bay Area: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Sonoma, and the City of Berkeley. (Yet again, Napa and Solano counties did not join).
Specifically, this new mandate means masks are back on for indoor dining, even if you’re fully vaccinated. If anyone needs a refresher, you will be required to wear a mask anytime you’re not eating or drinking, including waiting to be seated, reading the menu, using the restroom, and the kicker everyone forgets, every time a server approaches the table.
At least for now, officials didn’t mention bringing back any other indoor dining restrictions, such as capacity limits, party size limits, or time limits. They were also vague on enforcement, some health officers saying they would provide signs to restaurants, but most generalizing that they hoped diners would be on their best behavior. (The exception was Santa Clara, where apparently diners can report any restaurants that aren’t complying through the county website.)
SF restaurant and bar owners anticipated this news and sounded resigned. Chef-partner Marialisa Lopez from Pearl 6101 told her staff to start bringing their masks in over the weekend, in expectation of the news. “I’m indifferent,” she sighs. “Better safe than sorry.” Pearl will add a note back to the menu, and servers will remind diners of the new mandate when they sit down. “It’s not the biggest deal,” Lopez says, although behind the scenes in the kitchen, she’s not particularly looking forward to yelling and struggling to hear cooks down on the line and sweating through a mask while running a 1,200-degree oven.
“We’re all so numb to it right now, it’s like whatever, what’s next,” agrees Aaron Paul of Macondray cocktail bar. “But of course, we’re willing to be compliant.” Macondray already reintroduced masks for staff last week, after seeing many vaccinated friends in the industry come down with breakthrough infections. Paul says returning to masks isn’t a big deal, but capacity limits would hurt business if restaurants lost half their tables again. But also, he doesn’t quite follow the logic of a mask mandate without capacity limits, if people are just going to take off their masks and start drinking shoulder to shoulder at the bar. “If we go back to wearing masks, that’s not going to make any difference unless we go back to distancing the tables,” Paul says. Without that, “There is zero point.”
Both Lopez and Paul said that a mask mandate is one thing, as it’s very visual, easy to check, and diners are used to it. But they were relieved if uneasy that a vaccine mandate is off the table for now, despite a growing number of bars and restaurants have independently decided to start asking for proof of vaccination. “A vaccine mandate would be next level,” Lopez says. “That would be much more complicated to enforce.”