San Benito County’s face covering requirement could be implemented by Friday, while officials discussed relaxing certain COVID-19 restrictions as the community prepares to eventually reopen the local economy.
Public Health Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib told supervisors he wants to require face coverings for public activities as a way to eventually ease the stay at home order.
“As we open up and ease businesses and have additional places of businesses where you can go, we want to make sure you have that extra, extra piece of armor on you,” he said.
He said such measures are necessary because there is no treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus that has led to 45 confirmed infections and two deaths in San Benito County. Some medical experts believe the infection rate is much higher, but will be unknown without more testing.
The face covering mandate would require residents to wear a face covering of some kind, including for essential workers, but not the medical grade masks that are being rationed for health care workers. He explained they would not be required for activities like taking walks, bicycling around the neighborhood or in a vehicle other than public transportation.
“We’re in this for a while now,” he said. “This isn’t going to go away.”
Supervisors had varying views on the face covering requirement and shared their thoughts on other restrictions going forward. After Fenstersheib insisted COVID-19 is not like the seasonal flu – and that it’s much more lethal and transmissible with no cure – Supervisor Peter Hernandez followed up by saying members of the public have questioned whether the coronavirus is actually more serious than influenza.
“How many people have died from influenza? That’s one question that’s been asked,” he said, adding that people can do their own homework on the issue.
Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez in public comment supported the health officer’s contention about the flawed flu comparison and face covering requirement.
“We don’t want to be shut down forever,” the mayor said. “But we don’t want to be shut down again because we opened up too soon. This is not the flu. This is something much more serious than that.”
As for restrictions, Supervisor Mark Medina said he would like consideration to allow certain activities as the shelter in place order is amended – such as opening parks and golf courses, and permitting construction.
“A majority of these construction industries, they don’t have one-on-one contact with a customer,” he said, emphasizing that he’s supportive of the face coverings.
Other supervisors said they agree about allowing use of parks and golf courses, and the health officer appeared open to those changes. There was talk at the meeting about issuing a face covering requirement by Friday morning, while the county’s shelter in place order extends to May 3.
Fenstersheib wasn’t as agreeable about construction. In San Benito County, construction is allowed in the current order only if at least 10% of a project is affordable housing. That has left most builders on hold like many other local industries.
“A lot of times, they’re right up against each other working close,” the health officer said.
Medina also pushed for reducing any potential penalties from a misdemeanor – as proposed in a rough draft – to a $100 administrative citation.
“When we have that in an order, it scares people,” he said about potential jail time.
Hernandez and Supervisor Jim Gillio supported Medina’s perspective on the penalty.
“I absolutely do not support making this a misdemeanor,” said Gillio, a retired police official. “We don’t have the resources to lock people up that truly deserve to be locked up.”
Two other supervisors – Jaime De La Cruz and Anthony Botelho – took contrasting views on the subject as a whole. De La Cruz warned against opening up too soon, and Botelho called the restrictions overreaching, including the face covering mandate.
“Let’s try to be smart about this,” De La Cruz said. “Don’t react to peer pressure.”
Botelho asked the health officer how he envisions the face covering mandate being enforced.
“I see this being enforced pretty much by the businesses,” Fenstersheib said. “People really have to have these on to enter their businesses.”
He said police wouldn’t do enforcement unless there is some sort of altercation or someone “absolutely refused to comply.”