With California lifting its mask mandate on Feb. 16, Berkeley will follow suit. Starting Wednesday, individuals, regardless of vaccination status, will no longer be required to wear masks in indoor spaces. While businesses will still have the option to require customers to mask up, vulnerable populations — namely, Berkeley’s houseless population — cannot make the same requests to those in close proximity.
Instead, the physical safety of houseless people relies entirely on public responsibility, a variable that can be unreliable and unempathetic. Compounded with the particularly contagious omicron variant, the lack of health infrastructure for the houseless community and the lifting of the mask mandate will form a dangerous mix.
Houseless populations have already faced surges of infection. With lower vaccination rates on average, houseless populations are also more likely to be of older age and with chronic illnesses. These conditions have been exacerbated in several crowded shelters for the unhoused along the East Bay. Recently, the Division Circle Navigation Center in San Francisco reported three members of its staff and more than half of its 88 residents had been infected with COVID-19. With the increasingly contagious nature of the virus, those privileged enough to access masks, testing and self-sequestration must take advantage of such resources to keep vulnerable populations safe.
Beyond every Berkeley resident’s commitment to personal safety, the city must improve its health infrastructure to protect the houseless community. This improvement must occur at structural and social levels. Fostering a mutual respect and understanding with the houseless community is the first step that the city must take to truly aid them with COVID-19 resources, and have the standing to ask them to get tested and vaccinated.
Structurally, testing and vaccinations are not widely accessible for the houseless community. Appointment-based testing requires access to a device that can connect to Wi-Fi, as well as an ID, insurance or a fee of more than $100 — not to mention the need for internet-connected devices to know where and when testing sites are open. While U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration recently distributed free rapid tests to each household, those without houses have not received such benefits. The simple act of publicizing the resources that are available offline — such as Project Roomkey, a non-congregate sheltering option for the houseless — would help.
City leaders must reconsider lifting the mask mandate. Now more than ever, Berkeley residents must recognize the role they all play in heightening risks for those who are most vulnerable.