The maskne scars had finally started to fade. Smiling at strangers was starting to feel natural again. The summertime air had finally filled our lungs, unobstructed, and seasonal sun — or, in the case of the past few weeks, a near-constant drizzle and thick coat of fog — tickled our bare faces. For many of us, living the last month mask-free has been, literally and figuratively, a breath of fresh air.
That was, until this past Friday, when San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties and the city of Berkeley issued a joint statement. Everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated, is now highly encouraged to wear masks indoors.
According to the statement, the recommendation is “an extra precautionary measure for those who are fully vaccinated,” as well as a way “to ensure easy verification that all unvaccinated are masked in those settings.”
Most San Franciscans have been pretty willing to mask-up this go-round. Most of the local population has gotten their shots, too. Whereas 52 percent of Californians over 12 are fully vaccinated and only 49.7 percent of people over 12 are fully vaccinated nationwide, 76 percent of San Franciscans in this age group are dosed-up. That makes vaccination rates in San Francisco some of the highest in the country. In Los Angeles, the first city in the country to reinstate an indoor mask mandate after lifting it a few weeks ago, only 52.6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Sure, a small fraction of the population, like those with specific allergies, can’t take the vaccine. There is also the possibility that some people, especially those with a suppressed immune system, may lose some degree of immunity six-to-12 months after getting immunized. But for the most part, most of us in San Francisco will be masking up because unvaccinated people continue to spread the coronavirus, including the particularly virulent Delta variant. As many have already pointed out, today’s pandemic is a pandemic of the unvaccinated — which means the vaccinated among us are now supposed to change our behavior because others who are misled or indifferent about COVID-19 won’t take a life-saving jab themselves.
This dose of reality is making a lot of locals frustrated with the new mask guidance, and hesitant to oblige. So, we asked Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and director of the UCSF Prevention and Public Health Group, about how seriously we should take the new rules. His answers have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Q: Why a mask recommendation, and not a mandate?
A: Different people are making the decisions! I don’t know that anybody’s walking around with a playbook that says, if you cross this threshold, you need to take specific steps. There are various and sundry degrees of additional mitigation measures that you could take beyond pushing vaccinations. There’s a lot of room to move on vaccination, going all the way up to even mandates, and there’s also room to move on requiring masks.
Q: Why do I have to wear a mask if I’m vaccinated?
A: There are a couple of reasons. One is that people who are unvaccinated are required to wear masks, and it’s hard for shopkeepers, merchants and restaurateurs to sort out who’s been vaccinated and who’s not been vaccinated. The other reason is that there’s a certain amount of the population that has been vaccinated for whom the vaccines may not have worked as well. Those are people who were immunosuppressed or had solid organ transplants or people who, for whatever reason, the vaccines haven’t taken as well. The CDC this week is considering whether to add a third dose of the vaccine for those people. So if you’re one of those people, I think you really need to be careful about your health and exposure. It’s not about solidarity, but more individual protection.
Q: Will we ever need to mask outdoors again?
A: You can imagine situations, like outdoor concerts, where it might be the better part of valor to be masked. It may be recommended, but I’d think we’d have to follow the epidemiology to see. If you’re going to one of those events, and you’re immunosuppressed, I think you need to be looking out for yourself. I would encourage you to be very wary in those types of situations.
Q: Do we need to practice social distancing from vaccinated friends?
A: I think you’re pretty safe hanging out with other vaccinated friends. That being said, I’d be a little wary. I was with a whole bunch of people this weekend. We’re all older (Rutherford is 69), and all vaccinated — hardcore vaccinated, no question about it. But people get right up in people’s faces, inches away, talking. Part of that is because people like me are too vain to get a hearing aid. But you know, that kind of talking, really really close — maybe we need a little more distance, or to be a little more thoughtful about that.
Q: What precautions are you taking right now?
A: I’ve started to wear a mask in the grocery store again. I wasn’t for a couple of weeks. And I think that if I went to the movies, or if I went into big crowds of people — I’m thinking football games — I would wear it. My wife got tickets for a band at the Greek Theatre in September, and I’m thinking, well, it’ll be a game time decision. Something like that might be a situation where you’d want to wear a mask.