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Contra Costa opens vaccine eligibility to those 50 and over

Fitness Center, indoor Creekside dining reopen with capacity limits

By Sam Richards

Staff writer


(Monday, March 22) Contra Costa County has extended COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to residents who are 50 and older and live or work in the county, regardless of whether they have underlying health conditions.

The county announced the decision Monday after receiving additional vaccine from the federal government for its federally-qualified health centers. This allocation is in addition to the vaccine the county gets from the state each week.

Last week, Contra Costa opened eligibility for residents ages 16 to 64 who have qualifying underlying health conditions.

“We look forward to the coming months when we can do away with vaccine eligibility, when anyone and everyone is eligible,” said Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors Chair Diane Burgis. “More and more doses of vaccine are coming into the county each week and we expect that trend to continue.”

Residents can request an appointment from the county online at or by calling 833-829-2626.

The decision also comes two weeks after some businesses faced reduced restrictions after Contra Costa moved from the purple tier into the less restrictive red tier, as outline in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

David Fiore wiped down the elliptical machine he’d been working out on, and said he was happy to use that and other equipment at the Tice Creek Fitness Center again – even if the mask he had to wear was “suffocating.”

“Just being able to do cardio again is great,” said Fiore, working out last Thursday, the Fitness Center’s first day reopened. “So this is a good start, as long as we keep moving in this direction.”

The faint whir of the elliptical machines and the rhythmic click-clack of weight machines was one sign that normal life in creeping back into Rossmoor, in welcome dribs and drabs.

Gyms like the Tice Creek Fitness Center, along with restaurants, dance studios and museums, can resume indoor operations with limited capacities, and most retail stores and shopping malls may increase their maximum indoor capacity. Grocery stores can operate at full capacity.

In Rossmoor, the Creekside Grill and Bar has resumed serving meals indoors (at 25% capacity). There is less-restricted doubles play for tennis, pickleball, lawn bowling and bocce, and churches using indoor Rossmoor facilities can meet again, at maximum 25 percent capacity.

In the coming days, Gateway studios are reopening with limited capacity; and, by sometime in April, some recreation classes can start meeting outdoors, according to Jeff Matheson, Rossmoor’s director of resident services.

Movies are scheduled to return soon to Peacock Hall, with planned showings of the 2020 film “Mank,” about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, scheduled for March 31 and April 1, said Brian Pennebaker, Rossmoor’s special events coordinator. And Matheson and Pennebaker said officials are reviewing state venue guidelines for outdoor entertainment events at Rossmoor.

As with most things in the COVID-19 era, there are restrictions guiding places and activities. For movies at Peacock Hall, with 25% maximum capacity, approximately 25 people will be seated at each showing, socially distanced and masked. Installation of an upgraded “needlepoint bipolar ionization” filtration system, installed recently at Gateway and several other Rossmoor facilities at a cost of $150,000, should also help fight the spread of COVID.

Movie-watchers will need reservations made through, Pennebaker said; folks needing help making reservations can call 925-988-7700 for human assistance. Reservations for showings of “Mank,” three each on the two days, will be taken starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, March 25. Future film showings, he said, will depend largely on how things go with these first showings, both in terms of protocol and demand.

“Some people are apprehensive, others are anxious to get out and do things,” Pennebaker said. “We’re going to test it out and see what happens.”

Fitness Center Manager Mark Metcalf said that with 10% allowable capacity, 10 people can work out there during each of 10 75-minute time slots over the course of a weekday. Everyone must make reservations, he said, and everyone must wear a face covering while working out. The fitness center has a 15-minute cleaning period after every 75-minute time block, to disinfect machines and various other surfaces.

It’s all a needed step on the path to a new normal, Metcalf said. “It’s impossible for us to deliver what we deliver without being open,” he said. “We need to be around our users.”

The county’s March 14 move to the red tier comes largely thanks to a steady drop in the average daily number of new COVID cases.

“We follow what’s permitted in the red tier,” Matheson said. “The guidelines aren’t always crystal clear, and county health officials answer our questions.”

The reopening of some other Rossmoor locations and amenities, including the Tice Creek pool, will have to wait at least until Contra Costa County moves to the less restrictive “orange tier.”

Tim O’Keefe, Golden Rain Foundation’s CEO, said the decisions on what Rossmoor buildings reopen and when won’t be strictly based on the county health order, but also on further consultation with public health officials.

“We will query public health officials after each health order or tier change to confirm that the changes are appropriate for our age demographic out of an abundance of caution,” O’Keefe said.

Dr. Chris Farnitano, the county’s health officer, said that once a county enters a new tier classification, like red, it must remain at that tier for at least three weeks before it can move to a less restrictive tier (orange). That same county could move to a more restrictive tier in as little as two weeks, however, if infection rates and other factors warrant, Farnitano added.

He and other county health officials continue to emphasize that residents must keep doing the COVID safety protocol basics – wearing a mask, socially distancing, frequent handwashing, keeping any gatherings small – even as case rates drop and vaccinations rise.

The likeliest roadblock to an ongoing easing of COVID restrictions, Farnitano said, is whether any of several virus variants gain a foothold locally. On March 16, Contra Costa Health Services confirmed the first two known cases of a highly infectious British variant involving county residents. In a March 16 news release, Farnitano said there are likely many more cases in the community that have not been detected.

“There is concern about the variants,” he said in a subsequent March 16 interview. “I’m optimistic that sometime in April, we’ll move to the orange tier. But the caveat is concern about these variants.”

In the meantime, some Rossmoor residents say they are hopeful the worst of the pandemic is behind them.

“This is the first honest-to-goodness sit-down meal inside a restaurant I’ve had since this all started,” said Ariel Witbeck of Rossmoor, who with friend Nancy Rude of Walnut Creek were enjoying a meal March 17 at the Creekside Grill. The grill on March 14 hosted its first indoor dining since November.

The women were celebrating not only their recent COVID vaccinations, but also “the first time we’ve been able to get together and play chamber music” in a while, Witbeck said. “It’s delightful that we can do this (again).”

Creekside owner Stan Gedeon acknowledged that the indoor crowd is smaller than a year ago, “but I’ll take what I can get. As the days go by, more and more people may come out.”

When to reopen the dining rooms at The Waterford congregate-living complex will be discussed by the Mutual 58 board of directors at its March 25 meeting, said Channa Alperin, The Waterford’s executive director.

In-person Masses resumed March 14 at St. Anne’s Catholic Church just outside Rossmoor’s gates. At this point, there will be four such Masses per week, with a maximum attendance of 70 people inside the church. The Rev. Joseph Parekkatt of St. Anne’s said attendance the first few days ranged from 25 to 60 people.

“Those who came are really happy about it because they get to participate in the service,” Parekkatt said. There’s still trepidation among some parishioners, he said, but he hopes in-person Masses will continue to attract more people.

At the Tice Creek Fitness Center, Kathy Fiore said she couldn’t have been happier to participate in lifting weights and doing cardio. It’s a welcome respite, she said, from walking and hiking.

“I’ve missed it so much,” she said of the fitness center. “It just sort of makes things feel more normal to come down here.”