When a member of the public threatened to place Santa Barbara County’s top two public health officers under citizens’ arrest this Tuesday morning over the county’s indoor mask mandate — and share videotapes of the event with the world — Supervisor Das Williams had enough.
Williams objected to what he termed a not-so-veiled threat of physical violence on the county’s Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg and Ansorg’s boss, Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso. He called on the board’s chair, Supervisor Bob Nelson, to hold members of the public more accountable for such statements. He also questioned Nelson’s policy of setting aside time at the start of every supervisors’ meeting so members of the public can sound off on the subject of COVID. This approach, Williams said “may have outlived its usefulness.”
Nelson said he made a point to carve out time for the critics of the county’s COVID response because they’d show up and speak anyway, likely intruding on other matters of board deliberation. As a matter of law, the supervisors are limited on what limits they can impose on public comment. They are entitled to limit the amount of time members of the public can speak on any issue and can limit public remarks to matters over which the supervisors have jurisdiction.
“There is a level of frustration out there,” Nelson added. “There’s a need to let the air out of the balloon. That’s what I’m doing.” Nelson acknowledged, however, some of the comments made by the mandate critics cross the line of civility and said he’s spoken to them about that.
Giving rise to Supervisor Williams’s concern were remarks made by Matthew Strezpek blasting as unconstitutional the county’s mask mandate, which he claimed limited the public’s mobility and ability to breathe. Complaining of what he termed “medical tyranny,” Strezpek stated, “We may place Van Do-Reynoso, Henning Ansorg, you and several other officials under citizens’ arrest for misdemeanor crimes.” Ansorg and Do-Reynoso, he claimed, were guilty of crimes of child abuse “by forcing children to wear face masks.” He added, “Now we may sue you, arrest you, and share videos of your arrest worldwide.”
Strezpek may have threatened more direct action, but every Tuesday for many months now, the supervisors have heard heated denunciations from a coterie of critics who have frequently likened their policies to that of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. This Tuesday, they heard from one speaker who claimed she and her mask-less daughter were forced off an MTD bus by a bus driver who she described as “a member of a minority.” Others complained of teachers having just been fired for refusing to get vaccinated.
Supervisor Gregg Hart, more dismissive than alarmed, commented, “The number of speakers has dwindled to a micro-small group of people determined to say the same thing week after week.”
The question more pressing to other supervisors was at what point Ansorg and Do-Reynoso believed it would be safe to rescind the county’s indoor mask mandate. Do-Reynoso answered: when the case rate dropped to no more than six per 100,000 for two weeks running. Right now, she added, it’s hovering at nine cases per 100,000.
Supervisor Steve Lavagnino expressed impatience at the persistence of the mask mandate in the face of higher vaccination numbers. Currently, Lavagnino noted, 79 percent of the vaccination-eligible population have gotten a shot. That, he said, should be cause for celebration. He said he remembered when the prospect of hitting 70 percent seemed out of reach. He ridiculed the idea that anyone who hasn’t gotten vaccinated already will soon get a shot.
“Is this still an emergency?” Lavagnino asked, expressing frustration at the lack of a clearly set, well-understood goal. “I don’t know how to talk to people about how we get there.”
One explanation — that the goal posts seem to keep moving — lies in the difference between vaccinating the total population and the vaccine-eligible population, Ansorg explained. With the CDC having just approved vaccines for kids 5-11, the number of county residents now eligible for vaccinations will increase by 10 percent. Assuming just 15 percent of the “eligible” do not get vaccinated under this scenario,
Ansorg calculated, that leaves 100,000 county residents still at risk. Given the approach of winter — with colder temperatures, more indoor activities, and the imminent arrival of prolonged holiday festivities — caution, he argued, was required to prevent a new surge.
All that notwithstanding, the county’s recent COVID statistics show continued improvement. The number of new cases — 30 — is down 46 percent from two weeks ago, and the number of still-active cases — 291 — is down 21 percent. The number of hospitalizations — 39 — is up three percent. The number of deaths is 524, up from 516 a couple of weeks ago.
Ansorg and Do-Reynoso told the supervisors that Marin County was the one county to embrace mask mandates and then lift those mandates. (Contra Costa and Alameda counties have lifted portions of their mandates, as well.) Marin’s vaccination numbers, according to Supervisor Hart, are significantly higher than Santa Barbara’s. Ninety-eight percent of all eligible in Marin have gotten at least one shot and 94 percent have gotten both. Translated into total population, 87 percent of all residents have gotten at least one dose and 81 percent have gotten both.
“We have a ways to go,” Hart concluded.
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