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Sonoma County may require indoor masks until early 2022 under new COVID-19 benchmarks

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Indoor masking rules are likely to remain in effect in Sonoma County until the beginning of the new year under a series of COVID-19 benchmarks issued Thursday.

The masking rules have been in effect since early August, the height of the deadly summer surge.

Sonoma County and nine other Bay Area jurisdictions on Thursday set out a list of criteria that must be met before the indoor masking requirements are lifted.

The benchmarks require a reduction in local transmission, a high vaccination rate and stable coronavirus hospitalization rates.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the local health officer, said it may be the beginning of next year before those criteria are met in Sonoma County.

“We now have criteria in place that we're going to track on our dashboard for when the mask mandate will be lifted, and I'm hopeful that we will reach this by the first of the year,” Mase said.

Mase added that indoor masking, along with the ongoing vaccination effort, has been effective in reducing local COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations. But more improvement is needed, she said.

One of the requirements is that counties or jurisdictions must achieve a vaccination rate of 80% of their total population. At present, only 69% of the county is fully vaccinated.

But Mase said the critieria includes an alternative to the vaccination benchmark. She said the requirement is dropped eight weeks after a COVID-19 vaccine is made available to 5- to 11-year-olds.

County officials said an FDA advisory committee is scheduled to consider granting emergency authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children in that age group.

“That's probably going to be the deciding factor on when we’ll have a chance to rescind the mask mandate,” Mase said. The mask mandate is simply a mask mandate, anybody who wants to wear a mask can still wear a mask.”

Previously, health officials across California used state-ordered benchmarks for putting in place or lifting public health restrictions. This time, Bay Area health officers are using pandemic goals established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under the other requirements, jurisdictions must reach a moderate (yellow) level of COVID-19 transmission tier, as defined by the CDC and remain there for three weeks.

That means bringing case rates down to between 10 and 49.99 weekly cases per 100,000 residents. Sonoma County is currently at 76.87 new weekly cases per 100,000 people, according to the CDC.

Lastly, local COVID-19 hospitalizations must be low and stable, in the judgment of the health officer.

Counties that have reached agreement on the bench marks include Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma and the City of Berkeley.

Officials said lifting a local indoor mask mandate would not prevent businesses, nonprofits, churches or others with public indoor spaces from imposing their own requirements.

The state’s own mask rules will remain in effect after local masking requirements are lifted. That means that people who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 must continue to wear masks in businesses and indoor public spaces, officials said.

Some local businesses, while expressing relief that the pandemic outlook is improving, said having masking requirements for some and not others could pose problems.

Dean Molsberry, co-owner of Molsberry Market in Larkfield said his business will likely allow his employees to decide whether they want to wear a mask, though masks will probably still be recommended. He said it would be difficult to enforce a mask rule for some and not others.

“You can't police it for customers coming in, it just isn't going to happen, at least not in a grocery store,” Molsberry said. “There's no way I can have somebody checking cards as they come in the door and go, “Are you vaccinated?”

State rules also require masking for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in health care facilities, public transit and adult and senior care facilities. Indoor masking in schools is also required by state, and will not be affected if and when the county lifts its own mandate.

Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of Russian River Brewing Company, said she is thankful there “is movement” toward greater normalcy. But said she wishes there could be more leniency on those who are vaccinated.

“It just seems really strange to me that I'm sitting in an office area with a bunch of fully vaccinated employees and we're still having to wear masks around each other,” she said.

Cilurzo said she was also concerned about having to enforce mask rules for the unvaccinated. “At some point, businesses shouldn't have to be responsible for mandating what the general public does,” she said.

Stan Bennett, the owner of Stan Bennett’s Health & Fitness gym, said he’ll abide by what ever the “medical evidence” mandates. Though pandemic restrictions and client fears have decreased membership attendance by 40% to 50%, Bennett said his main concern is the safety of his staff and customers.

“We're not rebels, we're not politically oriented, we want to do whatever is in the best interest of our members,” Bennett said. “That's always been our policy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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