We've come to another one of those rule-change days in the pandemic, at least in San Francisco and Marin, and it's a change that again raises the question of how these specific public-health decisions are being made.

It makes sense, as a coalition of Bay Area health officers explained last week, that all mask mandates aren't being dropped yet because case levels still aren't as low as they were back in June when we last went through a round of mask-dropping. But San Francisco, which as of this week is still in the orange or "substantial" category for virus transmission in the CDC's eyes, is making its own move along with Marin County — which is in the yellow or "moderate" zone — to let go of the mask rule for gyms, fitness centers, college classes, offices, and religious services effective today, October 15.


For the vaccinated, it is fairly safe, but not entirely without risk, to go maskless at the gym, given how new case counts have been dropping in San Francisco for the last two months, coming off of the Delta surge. And cases have been dropping despite the fact that bars and restaurants have been allowing patrons to be mostly maskless indoors — yes you need a mask when you walk in and when you go to the restroom or approach a bartender, but mostly no one is masked if you look around inside bars and clubs, which can get quite crowded just like they did in normal times.

But isn't heavy breathing next to someone in a gym a lot worse than being six feet away at a table in a restaurant?

At this point, there's a sort of signaling happening, with public health officials in the Bay Area essentially saying, "Yes, the outlook is getting brighter, but this virus has been unpredictable and if we say drop your masks, full stop, we could be facing another surge so let's go slowly this time."

As Dr. Grant Colfax said last week, "San Francisco’s health orders and shared mitigation efforts have been successful in keeping us safer as a community, and a relaxation of masking orders is warranted. We’ll continue to follow the data and science where it leads us."

Contra Costa County announced this week that it will join SF and Marin in dropping masks in gyms and certain settings beginning November 1. And it's very likely that San Francisco will soon join Marin in the CDC's yellow tier — the seven-day average for new cases in SF was 74 as of October 7, which is about eight cases per 100,000 residents. It isn't the low average of 10 daily cases seen back on June 15, but it's getting lower.

Given the criteria laid out by the health officers last week — 80% vaccination among all county residents of all ages, plus three consecutive weeks in the CDC's yellow tier — it's looking likely that the mask mandate for bars and restaurants will stay in place until the new year. Also, under the state's rules, masks still have to remain on, regardless, in subway stations, on public transit, at airports, on planes, in ride-shares and taxis, in healthcare settings, and in schools.

But is it such a mandate when the whole "actively eating and drinking" stipulation isn't really being heeded by anyone?

Dr. Bob Wachter, the chief of medicine at UCSF medical school and a frequent commenter in the media during the pandemic, told the Chronicle this week that it's all about "negotiat[ing] what level of risk we’re willing to tolerate" at this point. As long as everyone in a space is vaccinated, it's well ventilated, and no one is there if they aren't feeling well, then you should feel relatively safe. But some people are likely to stay masked at the gym, especially if they're among those still masked on the sidewalk.

Glenn Shope, owner of MX3 Fitness in the Castro, tells Bay Area News Group that he, for one, is glad the masks are being dropped in gyms.

"It is definitely beneficial because it’s a lot easier to work out doing high-intensity stuff without a mask on,” Shope says. “It takes the onus off of the gym owners and trainers to constantly be enforcing the mask protocols, reminding people to put the mask on their nose and mouth, put it back on again after they’re done drinking, hydrating. It also signals to our members that it’s safe to be in a gym again.”

And if you still know anyone who's unvaccinated, have them read this scary thing by Dr. Dipti S. Barot in the Chronicle. Dr. Barot outlines the differences in how COVID infections ravage the bodies of the unvaccinated versus the vaccinated — explaining how so-called breakthrough infections in the vaccinated tend to pass quickly because the body is prepared to handle them, and they don't do any long-term damage to the lungs, kidneys, or other organs which can happen if you're unvaccinated.

Top image: Gabriel Carvalho works out without a face mask a Fitness SF gym on October 15, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)