Sure, COVID rules and regulations can be confusing, especially during the current omicron surge.
But one rule could not be any more clear: Masks are required at all indoor public venues in California.
That includes restaurants, theaters, stores and offices. And it most certainly includes the Paso Robles City Council Chambers.
Yet at a Tuesday meeting, several people in attendance — including a couple of council members — were maskless.
Never mind that omicron has been surging, and that masks are more important than ever — so much so that some universities, museums and government agencies are now requiring medical-grade masks, which are more effective than cloth coverings.
Never mind that Paso Robles reported 354 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, the very day of the meeting. That was by far the most of any city in the county.
And here’s another head-scratcher: When Mayor Steve Martin opened the meeting with a reading of the ground rules, he said masks were “strongly recommended” for all attendees.
Nope, they’re mandatory, as the council agenda spells out.
“Masks will be required for all individuals in the Council Chamber,” it says.
So why the discrepancy?
“That was my decision,” Martin wrote in an email. “The meetings are currently ‘hybrid,’ which means they are live and in-person. Seating is spaced out to maintain social distancing. If the room fills, which it has not, the overflow will be accommodated in the area outside of the room and people will be guided in to make public comment.
The mayor — who does comply with the mask mandate — indicated he has attempted to gain compliance, without success.
“I have tried to be diplomatic and persuasive to no avail,” he wrote.
Martin, by the way, attended Tuesday’s meeting via livestream. He had been exposed to COVID, and out of “an abundance of caution” — and according to state and county quarantine guidelines — was properly isolating while awaiting test results.
Of the four council members who attended in person, only two — Maria Garcia and Fred Strong — were masked.
Strong, who suffers from severe COPD, wears a clear face shield rather than a conventional mask.
“The clear mask I wear goes from the chin up to protect others,” he wrote.
He also noted that all council members have been fully vaccinated and boosted.
That’s good to know, but it doesn’t exempt them from the mask mandate, which has been issued by both the county and the state.
Yet Paso Councilman John Hamon believes wearing a mask should be a matter of choice — and he chooses not to do so.
“I am not concerned with contracting COVID at this point, nor do I worry about others who are not vaccinated and are out in public spaces unprotected where they may acquire the virus from a vaccinated person who might be carrying the bug – it’s their choice in a free democracy,” he wrote in an email.
We don’t like to nitpick, and we’re certainly not the mask police.
But if government officials aren’t following the rules, they’re giving everyone else license to ignore them — which was obvious Tuesday, since several people in attendance were not masked.
If there’s a medical reason city officials aren’t complying, then come out and say it, so we don’t all assume they are scofflaws.
Even better, Paso Robles could temporarily halt in-person council meetings until the surge is over. That’s what every other city council in the county is doing. So is the Board of Supervisors, though some other government bodies, such as school boards, also are using a hybrid system.
There are reasons for that. Not everyone has access to the internet, or they may not be comfortable commenting via Zoom.
But agencies that are going to allow in-person attendance shouldn’t just pay lip service to the fact that masks are required (not just recommended!).
They should also have an enforcement strategy. The Lucia Mar Unified School District, for example, has a four-step policy for dealing with violations.
It starts with a warning and progresses all the way to clearing the room and reassembling at an alternate location if necessary.
We get that not everyone agrees with COVID regulations, but elected officials — including city council members — are not in a position to unilaterally set public health policy. They don’t get to bend the rules to suit their own purposes.
Undermining regulations that are intended to keep the public safe is both deeply troubling and dangerous.
If the Paso Robles City Council isn’t prepared to enforce the mask mandate — including for it own members — it should stop holding in-person meetings.
This editorial has been updated to include a comment from Councilman John Hamon.