Public figures in liberal states and cities — including, most notably, Gavin Newsom — have in some cases been rightly held to account for not modeling perfect behavior, public-health-wise, during this pandemic. But should Mayor London Breed have been called out and excoriated for not having her mask on while out at a music venue with friends last week? Discuss.
There are two distinct sides to this debate. On the one side you have the business owners and consistent adherents of our often-changing public health orders over the last 18 months — some of whom have suffered great financial losses as a result of these orders — who cannot abide by the mayor being lax about orders she herself has had to hammer home for months for months, in the strict interest of public safety. On the other side you have the pandemic-fatigued populace, many of whom have likely done something similarly lax like removed their mask at a bar or restaurant, at times of both high and low COVID transmission rates in the last many months — who are going to be more empathetic. And now that they're vaccinated, this remains a somewhat risky but still relatively safe thing to do, according to epidemiologists.
It's especially not that huge of a deal, for the average citizen, when California currently enjoys the lowest average transmission rate of the Delta variant of any other state in the country.
But public figures, especially ones whose job it has been to admonish us all to stay home, put our masks back on, get vaccinated, and not be irresponsible, are held to a higher standard — just as Newsom was when he attended a fancy dinner with people outside his household that was only semi-outdoors, even if it was perfectly legal at the time in Napa County.
The Chronicle's Datebook first reported on the Breed sighting on Friday, and the story quickly went viral. Breed was at the Black Cat nightclub in the Tenderloin, there to catch a surprise reunion of Oakland’s Raphael Saadiq and D’Wayne Wiggins, two of the three original members of the group Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Chronicle arts and entertainment editor Mariecar Mendoza says she meant to just capture video of the performance, and didn't intend to play "gotcha" with Breed — who can be seen in the background, standing up at a table with friends, enthusiastically singing along with the musicians. Mendoza reported that Breed often had a drink in her hand — and the rules are technically that people can take their masks off while "actively" eating and drinking. And Mendoza admitted that she, herself, was unmasked while in the club, as was most everyone else.
The Black Cat, like all other bars, restaurants, gyms, and nightclubs in San Francisco, requires proof of full vaccination for entry.
Breed was asked Friday to offer an official response to the uproar, and she said, per SFGate, "It's sad that this is even a story."
She called the reunion of the Tony! Toni! Toné! members something "truly monumental," and she said it was too bad that the news of their performing in public for the first time in decades, along with "the incredible trumpeteer Maurice 'MoBetta' Brown," has been lost in this story.
Breed was unapologetic, as New York Magazine subsequently reported, saying, "So the fact that we have turned this into a story about being maskless, no: I’m not going to sip and put my mask on, sip and put my mask on, sip and put mask on, eat and put my mask on. While I’m eating and I’m drinking I’m going to keep my mask off. And yes, while we’re drinking, like everyone else there, we were all having a good time and again, all vaccinated."
She added, "Make sure you are vaccinated because of the requirements, but don't feel as though you have to be micro-managed about mask wearing. We don't need the fun police to come in and tell us what we should or shouldn't be doing."
San Francisco mayor defends not wearing a mask while partying, says she "got up and started dancing because I was feeling the spirit and I wasn’t thinking about a mask." pic.twitter.com/WDzLiBN5JZ— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) September 20, 2021
The trouble is, the health order remains in place which encourages people to stay seated in venues like this and technically says they should put masks back on between sips, and some critics aren't going to let that go.
Rumor has it some on the Board of Supervisors — likely Breed's frequent critics — are angry that Breed declined to apologize. Some SF business and gym owners are reportedly especially furious, given that they feel they have been held to account in ways that restaurants and bars have not, when it comes to constant mask-rule adherence. And if it's safe again to take masks off indoors when you're with other vaccinated people, the rules should arguably change again.
Dave Karraker, a rep for the SF Gym Owners Coalition, tells SFist in a statement, "Mayor Breed is probably experiencing the same thing we are all experiencing at this point: mask fatigue. This situation has put a very clear spotlight on the City’s need to review masks regulations – particularly where proof of vaccination is required – to see if the data truly support such stringent policies."
Karraker adds, "Small businesses like neighborhood fitness studios are still struggling to survive after being closed half of last year. If the science says there is an opportunity for San Francisco to lift the mask mandates for vaccinated individuals, as they have done in New York, we should pursue that immediately to help these businesses safely get back on their feet."
The CDC reinstated a nationwide mask recommendation in July, for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, when in indoor public spaces. That change followed an outbreak of the Delta variant among vaccinated people in Provincetown over the crowded Fourth of July week there. Bay Area health officers followed up with their own order the first week of August, rescinding the June 15 rule that had allowed masks to come off in most situations except public transit and hospitals.
As of last week, California became one of three states to be downgraded by the CDC to the "Orange" tier of "substantial" COVID transmission, down from the "high" or "Red" tier that the rest of the country remains in from the Delta surge.
Will Breed still apologize after digging her heels in? Is it time to relax the rules again? Will there be some political price to pay for this — after Newsom, arguably, was widely forgiven the recall?