Santa Clara County, once a COVID policy trailblazer, won’t go as far as a vaccine mandate

When the pandemic struck almost two years ago, Santa Clara County became a trailblazer in the fight to stop COVID-19’s deadly spread, quickly issuing health orders that were so restrictive some critics called them draconian.

Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody was one of the main corralling forces behind those orders, leading the charge in effectively locking down 6 million residents — the first region in the nation to do so.

As the health crisis dragged on Santa Clara County officials took even more drastic measures, such as requiring employers to pry into the vaccination status of their employees, banning organized sports for a brief period in late 2020, trying to halt indoor worship services even though the state Supreme Court said they couldn’t and issuing more fines against businesses believed to be breaking public health orders than all other counties in the region combined.

So why, with the omicron variant pushing the state’s COVID-19 case rates to record-breaking levels, are county officials suddenly standing on the sidelines while other local governments dictate that only people who prove they’re fully vaccinated can enter businesses such as restaurants and gyms?

The simple answer, according to the county, is that proof-of-vaccination mandates for indoor dining and exercise activities won’t accomplish much for all the trouble.

When asked about such mandates during a recent press conference, Cody said they’re not necessary because the county has high vaccination rates and businesses have been “incredibly responsible, responsive and safe” with their customers.

County Executive Jeff Smith was blunter.

“The question of whether asking for proof of vaccine at the door is going to make a difference is not really well established,” Smith said Thursday. “It appears that it is not going to make a huge difference because wearing a mask is all you can do to prevent the spread in a (settling like a) restaurant.”

The county’s top priority right now is getting people vaccinated, not implementing a vaccination mandate, he said.

“We can only be in so many different places requiring so many different changes in life,” Smith said. “Transmissibility is going to be different based on the layout of a restaurant. Treating them all the same is not the right approach. Masking and social distancing is more important than vaccine status at the door.”

Santa Clara County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation — 81.9% of all its residents are fully innoculated — but other counties in the region, including those that have enacted proof-of-vaccination requirements, are reporting similar numbers. San Francisco’s vaccination rate is at 81%, Contra Costa County’s at 78.3% and Alameda County’s at 79.6%. In Berkeley, 91% of residents have been inoculated.

Still, every county across the region is getting slammed with COVID cases amid the omicron surge. Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties are all reporting weekly averages of around 90 cases per 100,000 residents, with San Francisco coming in the highest at 110 — numbers that have blown past last winter and this past summer’s peaks.

The high case rates have pushed all Bay Area counties to fall in line with the state’s December mask mandate in public settings, even counties like San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, Sonoma and Contra Costa and the city of Berkeley, which only recently had eased their mask restrictions.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo would like to see the county issue a broader vaccine mandate for indoor public gatherings. Liccardo, who recently proposed that employees and visitors of city-owned facilities must prove they’ve received booster shots, said he won’t push for a vaccination requirement to enter indoor restaurants, shops and entertainment venues in San Jose if the whole county isn’t doing the same.

“I would definitely support a regional or statewide mandate of that sort, but that is up to the public health authorities, not any one city,” Liccardo said. “It does us no good if residents are frustrated, confused or uncertain about whether the mandate applies every time they cross city limits.”

Unlike early in the pandemic, when the Bay Area’s public health departments jointly rolled out health orders, counties and cities now are taking individual approaches.

In August, San Francisco became the first major city in the U.S. to require proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 for a range of indoor activities, including dining, exercising and attending various shows and concerts. Since then, other Bay Area cities and counties have followed suit with similar orders, including Contra Costa County, Oakland and Berkeley. San Jose has a vaccination mandate that only applies to the venues it owns, and Santa Clara County recently required booster shots for workers in high-risk settings.

During a lunchtime walk on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View, Tyler Beattie, 72, said she would like to see Santa Clara County implement a vaccine mandate too.

“I thought it was a good idea,” she said about being asked to show her vaccination card when going out to eat in San Francisco recently. “It made me feel like people were being more careful about public health.”

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – JANUARY 5: Tyler Beatie is photographed along Castro Street on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Mountain View, Calif. Beatie spoke to the Bay Area News Group about COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Elliot Tsui, 18, of Palo Alto, said it doesn’t matter to him either way. Tsui, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, said it’s more important to him that everyone wears masks indoors.

“In general, I feel pretty comfortable,” he said. “But I would prefer if people would wear masks.”

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