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GRF Board votes to reopen indoor facilities; universal mask mandate to end Feb. 16

By Ann Peterson and Sam Richards

Staff writers


(Updated 9:20 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 9) With the county’s health officer recommending the move, the GRF Board voted Feb. 8 to reopen Rossmoor’s indoor facilities, effective Wednesday, Feb. 9.

The Board voted 8-1, with only Kathleen Stumpfel dissenting, to reopen the indoor facilities and follow all county guidelines, which includes wearing masks in all indoor facilities until the mandate lifts on Feb. 16 for fully vaccinated individuals in most indoor settings.

“Things are looking significantly better,” Dr. Ori Tzvieli, Contra Costa’s newly-named public health officer, told the GRF Board on Tuesday. “We expect the numbers to be at a pre-omicron level by March 1.”

It was Tzvieli who, in early January, advised CEO Tim O’Keefe to close Rossmoor’s indoor gathering spaces as the highly contagious omicron variant spread quickly through Contra Costa County and the nation. Given Rossmoor’s aged demographic, the Board voted on Jan. 7 to shut those spaces down as a precaution effective Jan. 10. The Board extended the shutdown, on a 5-4 vote, on Jan. 27, after Tzvieli recommended keeping indoor facilities closed through Feb. 14.

On Feb. 8, Tzvieli noted how the COVID-19 case rate and hospitalization rate had both dropped significantly since hospitalizations had peaked on Jan. 26. He added that the county worried about overwhelming the healthcare system because rising cases led to rising hospitalizations and an increase in deaths and the hospitals were dealing with staff shortages as their own personnel contracted COVID.

“It’s really only this week I feel confident we’ve gotten over the hump,” Tzvieli said.

While recommending a reopening, Tzvieli tempered that by saying Rossmoor residents should continue to consider holding events outdoors if the weather is nice because it’s still safer to meet outside. Tzvieli also emphasized that mask mandates work – “They’re absolutely helpful – there is not a doubt about that” – and said the Board could consider other safety measures, such as limiting capacities at indoor events and vaccine verifications, which could be strengthened by requiring boosters.

“I think you guys have done a good job striking a balance,” Tzvieli told the Board.

The Board on Tuesday had heard from a handful of residents who wanted the indoor facilities reopened. Mary Ramos said GRF shouldn’t be in the business of “turning recommendations into orders.”

“Let us make our choices; we are not a convalescence facility,” Ramos told the Board.

When Board members on Tuesday morning asked how soon the indoor facilities could reopen, Jeff Matheson, GRF’s director of resident services, said it could be done by Wednesday morning.

Stumpfel supported reopening but said she was in favor of requiring vaccinations and boosters for those who entered indoor facilities “because then we can all feel comfortable.”

Director Carl Brown eventually voted to reopen but not without reservations. “I will go along with what the county recommendation is, but I must say I am furious at people who refuse to get vaccinated,” he said. “I think it’s much like people deciding it’s their personal freedom to go through red lights.”

Director Dale Harrington said he didn’t support ordering any restrictions that extended beyond the county’s requirements, and in the end, the Board agreed to align its rules with the county requirements going forward. That was key considering Contra Costa has begun lifting some restrictions.

On Friday, Feb. 4, the county ended the mandate requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in the past 72 hours for some indoor businesses, such as restaurants and gyms.

On Wednesday, Feb. 9, Contra Costa and 10 other Bay Area health officers announced they will list most indoor mask mandates on Wednesday, Feb. 16 for those who are vaccinated. Unvaccinated individuals over the age of 2 will still be required to wear masks in all indoor public settings, the health officers said. Business, venue operators and hosts also may choose to require all patrons to wear masks.

Clubs and organizations in Rossmoor can set their own rules for mask wearing indoors, but per the Board’s decision, GRF facilities will not require masks for those who are vaccinated starting Feb. 16. A state requirement for masking remains in effect, regardless of vaccination status, for public transportation, healthcare settings, congregate settings such as homeless shelters, long-term care facilities, K-12 schools and childcare settings. Masks are still required on Rossmoor buses.

Bay Area health officials said they “continue to strongly recommend masks be used as an effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus, especially when case rates are high or when additional personal protection is needed.” In particular, they stressed wearing masks in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces and while around medically vulnerable people or young children who are not yet eligible for vaccines.

“We are able to take this next major step of removing the universal indoor mask requirement because we have laid a strong foundation in good public health protections – especially vaccines and boosters – and know we can reduce severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” said Tzvieli said in a news release Wednesday.

Contra Costa Health Services emphasized in the news release that “some people may understandably feel anxious about these changes to masking requirements in the county.” Those individuals can continue wearing masks, and the county asked that their choice should be respected.