Some Artists, Workers Say It’s Too Soon To Remove Masks Indoors

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Frontline workers have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and there are still racial disparities in vaccine rates. As a result, some artists and workers say it's too soon to remove mask mandates. (iStock)

With most COVID-19 restrictions lifting on June 15, it’s an optimistic time in California. Performing artists who’ve been out of work for over a year are excited to return to the stage. And eager fans are buying up tickets to concerts, plays and festivals.

Yet as much as it may feel like things are back to normal, the pandemic still isn’t over. Nearly 80% of eligible San Franciscans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but racial disparities remain. Only 56% of Black San Francisco residents have gotten at least one shot, compared to 68% of Latinos, 64% of whites and 75% of Asians. In Alameda County, where 78% of residents have at least one dose, it’s closer to 51% of Black residents and 53% of Latino residents. Experts have linked these lagging rates to difficulties getting time off work for vaccination (especially in working-class jobs), lack of access to information and mistrust in the medical system because of racism.

These disparities in vaccine rates also extend to infections and deaths. One University of California study found that line cook was the deadliest occupation during the pandemic, and other research has shown that people of color make up the majority of back-of-house workers in restaurants.

So even as California gears up for an arts and nightlife renaissance, some artists and service workers say it’s too soon to remove all COVID-19 precautions, especially requiring masks in indoor spaces. The state’s new rules stipulate that vaccinated people can go without masks in most settings. And although some businesses still require proof of vaccination for patrons, most aren’t checking people’s status. (Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace regulators, is set to announce new guidelines for workers on June 17.)

“We’re vaccinated and we think it’s an important step, but we feel like there need to be multiple preventative measures continuing forward until there are no new cases of COVID whatsoever; until there are no deaths from COVID whatsoever; until we have an understanding and in-depth studies of the efficacy and duration of vaccines and if they’re able to actually prevent infection, versus just symptomatic illness,” says Catalina Xavlena, an artist, former food service worker and organizer with the mutual aid collective Oakland Workers Fund.

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Indeed, the CDC says it’s unknown how long protection from the COVID-19 vaccine lasts. And although vaccines are effective in preventing illness and hospitalization, the CDC is still monitoring breakthrough cases and asymptomatic infections.

Oakland Workers Fund’s four founding core organizers are Mercedes Burke, Catalina Xavlena, Samantha Espinoza and Sophia Rocha (clockwise from top left). With the help of a small network of volunteers, they've distributed nearly $170,000 in aid to service workers impacted by the pandemic. (Oakland Workers Fund)

Since the start of the pandemic, Oakland Workers Fund volunteers have distributed nearly $170,000 in donations to struggling service workers. Their focus is on helping people hit hardest by the pandemic, including undocumented people ineligible for government aid, people who’ve contracted COVID-19 on the job, people who’ve been hospitalized or lost family members, and caretakers with dependents. With the help of volunteers, Xavlena and fellow organizers Sophia Rocha, Samantha Espinoza and Mercedes Burke are running a campaign encouraging people to call elected officials to demand that masks still be required indoors. Their other demands include personal protective equipment for workers, a living wage, hazard pay and reparations for those that got sick at work or lost a family member to COVID.

The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, a national group, has a similar campaign targeted at music venue owners. They advocate for continued masking, paid sick leave for workers, reduced capacities at shows and upgrading ventilation systems for indoor spaces, a measure the CDC also recommends.

“We should have learned some things throughout this time as to who our most vulnerable communities are and how to protect them,” says Espinoza, who is also an artist and has spent much of her career working in food service. “What does it say about changing mask mandates and lifting protections for our most vulnerable communities if [they] do not even have the similar protections as white people or people of a more privileged economic status?”