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Emotions rise as Healdsburg councilmember Skylaer Palacios gains prominence in local anti-vaccination campaign

Support, controversy follow Skylaer Palacios as she condemns Healdsburg’s vaccination mandate for meetings.|

Skylaer Palacios was busy the night of Thursday, Nov. 18.

At 5 p.m. that evening was a Healdsburg City Council work session on commercial cannabis policy, a meeting that would last more than two hours. Also on Palacios’ agenda was a 6:30 p.m. event organized by a group called Make Americans Free Again at Heartwood Church in Rohnert Park.

She was the featured speaker. The topic was her opposition to Healdsburg’s vaccine mandate for city council meetings.

In a twist of irony, her unvaccinated status allowed her to participate in both events.

Her four fellow council members, all vaccinated, have been attending council meetings in person, while Palacios must log on remotely. Several observers have pointed out that her background setting looked different during the council session that night. Presumably, she was beaming in from Heartwood Church.

Her decision not to get vaccinated as a defense against the coronavirus — which she first acknowledged publicly during a Nov. 1 council meeting — and her criticism of the council’s mandate for in-chambers gatherings had already emerged as a divisive issue for the city and its political decision makers.

But the rancor has grown over the past month, with Palacios becoming a figurehead in an anti-mandate movement that ranges beyond the small city limits of Healdsburg.

Her rift with the rest of the council will be on display Monday night. Her supporters have advertised a “Freedom Rally” protest at Healdsburg City Hall.

A post from the Sonoma County Republican Party that advocates support for Healdsburg City Councilmember Skylaer Palacios, who is fighting a COVID-19-related mandate that bars her from City Council chambers because she is not vaccinated against the illness. (Supplied)
A post from the Sonoma County Republican Party that advocates support for Healdsburg City Councilmember Skylaer Palacios, who is fighting a COVID-19-related mandate that bars her from City Council chambers because she is not vaccinated against the illness. (Supplied)

“We are bringing thousands of folks from Oakland, Vallejo, etc. to Healdsburg to explain it clearly to you,” one of the organizers, Adina Flores, wrote in the comments section during a YouTube feed of the last Healdsburg City Council meeting on Nov. 15.

Palacios is supposed to participate in a closed council session for an annual job review of the city attorney from 5 to 6 p.m., followed by a regular council meeting at 6 p.m. She said she doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to participate in the anti-mandate demonstration, which is scheduled for 5:30.

“My priority is being fully present during the council meeting,” Palacios added.

The Sonoma County Republican Party is among those who have amplified the protest on social media.

The engagement at Heartwood Church was arranged by a local chapter of Make Americans Free Again, an Ohio-based organization that agitates nationwide for legal challenges to government health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A church representative emphasized that the worship center opened its door for Palacios, but has no ties to Make Americans Free Again.

Palacios is discovering what other before her have — that taking a public stance in defiance of public health mandates brings immediate attention from the like-minded.

“There are people from every side of the political spectrum who believe the mandates are unjust, as well as both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals,” Palacios said in an emailed response to Press Democrat questions. “If anything, in a time of such political division, I see it as extremely positive that people with political differences can unite for a common cause, the belief in the basic human right of autonomy over one’s body.”

Flores and her partner, Shelby Pryor (who went by Shelby Dodson when interviewed for a Press Democrat story on vaccination tensions last summer), live in Santa Rosa, and their beef with mandates apparently goes beyond city limits.

“Do you need extra money in your pocket?!” they recently posted on multiple Instagram accounts. “Join our lawsuit against the Sonoma County Public Health Department for providing misinformation to our community regarding the COVID-19 vaccination.”

A Twitter post by Freedom Rally organizer Adina Flores, who supports Healdsburg City Councilmember Skylaer Palacios’ fight against her city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. (supplied)
A Twitter post by Freedom Rally organizer Adina Flores, who supports Healdsburg City Councilmember Skylaer Palacios’ fight against her city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. (supplied)

Pryor did not accept an interview request, but said in a text they have gathered 900 signatures “to remove the county health advisor” and the four Healdsburg City Council members who voted for the vaccination requirement.

Meanwhile, Cory O’Gorman, who has emerged as a consistent supporter of Palacios on Facebook and at Healdsburg council meetings, has listed addresses in Monte Rio and Santa Rosa. Amy Martensen, who also has been vocally anti-vaccine on the feeds of recent Healdsburg city sessions, is well-known as a political gadfly in Napa.

The scope of the demonstration concerns some Healdsburg residents.

“I certainly agree that people should be able to protest. I just don’t like outside people coming in and telling our town what we need to do. That’s what happened in Wisconsin,” former Healdsburg Mayor Brigette Mansell said, referring to the chaos — including the killing of two men during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin by vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse — that followed the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha in 2020.

Asked about out-of-town influences, Palacios wrote, “It is my understanding that one of the people organizing the rally is a Healdsburg resident, though others are involved. Every day, Healdsburg welcomes tourists from all over the world.”

Palacios said a larger protest makes sense in her town, pointing to Healdsburg as the first city in Sonoma County to require proof of vaccination to attend public meetings.

“While I believe the voices of Healdsburg residents should be the focus of our decision making, if this decision was not met with broad opposition, it is possible other municipalities would think it is OK to do the same thing,” she said. “Many people do not want that in our county, so it makes perfect sense that people from outside of the city are wanting to support. It is quite common for any protest to gain regional support.”

Mansell, who enthusiastically supported Palacios’ council campaign, is displeased with her stance on vaccination. The former mayor said she recently called Palacios to encourage a public forum on the vaccination topic. Healdsburg has the highest immunization rate of any Sonoma County ZIP code of its size or larger. About 88% of its residents age 5 and older are fully vaccinated.

“Public leaders need to support public policy,” Mansell said. “I guess I feel a sense of disappointment in Skylaer. And disagreement, because we’re talking about this instead of water use, land planning and other issues I really feel this town needs guidance on.”

Of the seven oral public comments at the Nov. 15 Healdsburg City Council meeting, six were related to the vaccination mandate.

One of those was by Flores, who asked, “Is this the city’s way of re-creating the Jim Crow laws? I’m sure you’re already aware that minorities have the lowest vaccination rate in this county.”

That accusation, in particular, has become a source of tension in Healdsburg.

Palacios and her supporters have repeatedly suggested that the city’s vaccination mandate for council meetings is racist and exclusionary because it is grounded in a medical establishment that has historically done harm to Black Americans. Palacios identifies as Black and Indigenous.

But even many of those who acknowledge the legitimate reasons for Black Americans to be wary say the charge of discrimination makes no sense in this context. As Healdsburg City Councilmember Ariel Kelley pointed out at the Nov. 15 meeting, Sonoma County’s relatively small Black population currently has the highest rate of full vaccination, 76.8%, among all ethnic groups.

Palacios pushed back at Kelley’s assertion that night, noting that those identifying as multiracial have the lowest rate, just 37.5%, and added that, “I definitely feel like that remark was made in order to discredit a serious issue that is facing the Black community.”

Kelley declined an interview for this story, saying she didn’t want to make the vaccination mandate about her. But the attacks from Palacios’ backers have frequently been aimed at Kelley and the group she formerly headed, Corazón Healdsburg.

“I think it’s interesting that as we continue to go through these eras from 1964 ’til now, we’re still fighting for rights as minorities. And it’s even more interesting that there’s a woman who sits on your council that supposedly represents us, yet her main concerns are things like the environment,” Pryor said during the Nov. 15 council meeting, in a reference to Kelley.

He later showed up at the office of the Corazón Healdsburg organization, looking to express his complaints in person, though Kelley no longer works there. Glaydon de Freitas, the organization’s current executive director, said he does not see the visit as a threat.

“We welcome any conversation,” said de Freitas, who was not in the office when Pryor came by. “But it needs to come from at least a credible source of information. The efficacy of the vaccination is not controversial. It’s something the science shows. If anyone shows up tomorrow and questions Corazón on our belief that the world is round, there’s no relevance to discuss.”

After being tugged into the debate, de Freitas’ group put out a public statement on Dec. 1.

“When COVID-19 vaccines were first being offered to the elderly and certain frontline workers earlier this year, Corazón raised concerns about the need for an equitable distribution of this vital resource,” it said. “ … During this process we encountered little to no vaccine hesitancy. Rather, Corazón was inundated with phone calls from residents looking for ways to access the vaccine.”

Mansell, who has known Palacios since the council member was in high school, believes vaccine efficacy has been discussed enough inside the Healdsburg chambers.

The City Council has voted twice now to maintain a hybrid model of attendance for its meetings, and to require full vaccination for in-person attendance. Mansell believes it’s time for Palacios to accept that vote and move onto other issues.

“If she’s not hearing me, I don’t want her to represent me,” she said. “Because there’s no benefit for me to say I like and admire you as a person if you’re not listening to what your constituents are saying.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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