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Imperial County Board Ends Mask Mandate

Ryan Kelley’s Motion Meant to Appease Mandate Opposition, Fellow Supervisors; Results in 3-2 Vote

District 4 Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley gestures during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, where the board voted 3-2 to lift the indoor masking health order on Monday, Nov. 1, nearly month earlier than what was recommended by the county public health officer. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

EL CENTRO — Countywide mask requirements for vaccinated individuals at public indoor settings will be a thing of the past starting Monday, Nov. 1.

On that date, the county’s current health order will align with the state’s requirement that only unvaccinated individuals must wear a mask at such indoor public venues.

Initially, county public health officials had proposed to align the local mask mandate with the state’s mandate starting on Nov. 23. Instead, the county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to amend the county’s proposal and have the local health order lifted on Nov. 1.

The latter date was proposed by District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley during the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26. It reflected an attempt to appease a vocal group of community members who were calling for an immediate end to the mask mandate, as well some of Kelley’s colleagues on the board, who supported the county public health officials’ recommendation.

Many of those gathered to oppose the local health order on indoor masking gathered yet again to make their voices heard during the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, in El Centro. The board voted 3-2 to lift the mask mandate on midnight Monday, Nov. 1 | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

“It seemed like a reasonable measure between what was being proposed and what the group wanted,” Kelley said after the board meeting adjourned. “It was not (Tuesday) and it wasn’t four weeks from now.”

The state’s current health order requires that unvaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings, while highly encouraging vaccinated individuals to follow suit.

The initial recommendation to lift the mask mandate on Nov. 23 was prompted by recent improvements in the county’s COVID-related daily case and hospitalization rates, Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday told the county board during its meeting.

District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley listens prior to motioning to lift the mask indoor mask mandate on Nov. 1 instead of Nov. 23, which was the recommendation of county public health officials. Kelley said the motion was meant to appease those who wanted the mandate lifted immediately and his fellow supervisors who wanted to wait. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

“There’s been a bit of a downward trend in our case rates since September,” said Munday, who appeared via Zoom. “We’re seeing trends that we want to see.”

As of Oct. 26, the county’s daily case rate stood at 23 new cases per day per 100,000 people, according to information Munday provided to the board.

Both he and Public Health Director Janette Angulo cautioned against an immediate lifting of the health order. The delayed lifting of the mask mandate would’ve provided community members and healthcare providers time to prepare for the anticipated availability in the coming weeks of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 and older, as well as booster shots for those whose previously had been vaccinated.

By doing so, the additional time would have helped further increased the Valley’s vaccination rate, which stood around 87 percent, they said.

In spite of their recommendation, a majority of the board voted to approve Kelley’s motion to expedite the lifting of the mask mandate to Nov. 1, or technically, 11:59 p.m. Oct. 31. District 5 Supervisor Ray Castillo and board Chair and Distroct 3 Supervisor Michael Kelley voted in favor of Ryan Kelley’s motion, while District 1 Supervisor and board Vice Chair Jesus Eduardo Escobar and District 2 Supervisor Luis Plancarte voted in opposition.

The vote was made by roll call, at Escobar’s urging.

“We have to have the cojones to support our local health officials, and if we’re not, we have to (vote) verbally,” he told his peers on the board.

District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar wanted a roll call vote on the lifting of the mask mandate earlier than recommended, saying the members of the Board of Supervisors needed to have the “cajones” to stand by that decision. He voted against lifting the mandate on Tuesday, Oct. 26. The vote passed 3-2. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

After the meeting adjourned, Escobar said that he thought the public health officials’ proposal and timeline was well thought out and deserving of the board’s support.

“I think we are wrong in jumping them and jumping the gun,” he said.

After the meeting, Ryan Kelley said that he had met with public health officials during the prior week and was left with the impression that they were partly supportive of his desire to lift the mask mandate. And though they had expressed a desire to lift the mandate at a much later date than he, Kelley saw no reason for such a postponement.

That Kelley had motioned to lift the mask mandate sooner than later should not have surprised anyone.

He was the only county supervisor who had initially voted in August against adopting a mask mandate that was stricter than that of the state.

Holtville resident John Hawk spoke at the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, calling the mask mandate “criminal.” | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

“I didn’t think it was necessary to make it a mandate,” Kelley said during a phone interview following the meeting. “Encouraging people to be respectful of one another was enough.”

A month later, the board then voted unanimously to extend the mandate, with the condition that it would return before the board periodically for review and reconsideration.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Kelley also read aloud a letter he recently wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom that implored him and his administration to reconsider vaccination mandates for state employees and vaccine and mask mandates for school children and staff.

He told those present at the meeting that he had also spoken with representatives of the governor’s office and was hoping to soon receive correspondence from Newsom in return.

“I’m happy to speak for those who want to focus on this issue,” he told those present at the meeting, eliciting a round of applause from the dozens of community members who opposed the local mask mandate.

As on prior board meetings, that group’s vocal and persistent opposition to the local health order was evident during the meeting’s public comment session, which board Chair Michael Kelley extended twice to allow more speakers to comment.

Chris Nunn, Christ Community Church senior pastor, said that the group’s opposition to the mask mandate was nothing less than a human rights issue that stripped the citizenry of its right to make their own individual medical decisions.

“If we give in today, tomorrow that overreach of government may take even more freedoms,” Nunn said.

Prior to the board meeting, Nunn also led a group in prayer outside the county Administrative Center building.

Those gathered at the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, to oppose masking mandates gather for a prayer circle before the meeting with Pastor Walter Colace (far left) and Pastor Chris Nunn (not pictured) of Christ Community Church leading the prayer. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

During his remarks to the board, Holtville resident John Hawk characterized the mask mandate as an unconstitutional affront to an individual’s civil liberties and which amounted to discrimination.

“That is criminal right there,” Hawk said.

Dr. Brian Tyson, owner and operator of three urgent-care centers in the Valley, told the board that he and his group of physicians were successfully able to treat more than 6,000 COVID-positive patients within a week of their diagnoses without any resulting deaths.

Imperial County Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday (upper left) appearing at the county Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, had recommended ending the local health order on indoor masking on Nov. 22, but the board voted 3-2 to end the order early, at midnight on Monday, Nov. 1. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

He also questioned why despite his expertise on the matter, no county official has seen fit to consult him or his colleague Dr. George Fareed to help formulate a better response to the pandemic, which he called a personal issue and not a public health issue.

“You guys have to give me the opportunity,” Tyson said moments before receiving a standing ovation from his supporters. “My services are available, just please ask for them.”

Additionally, two teachers spoke about the hardships they have encountered on the job because of the policies in place related to COVID-19.

The board’s vote to lift the mask mandate ahead of the county’s recommended schedule does not have any impact on current mask and vaccination mandates imposed on statewide schools.

In accordance with California Department of Public Health guidelines, universal masking is still required in certain indoor settings, including healthcare, detention facilities, long-term care, adult and senior care facilities, homeless shelters, public transportation, and youth settings, including schools, according to the county Public Health Department.

“As we enter flu season and with the upcoming holidays, it is highly recommended that individuals continue to wear masks/face covers indoors, regardless of vaccination status, to protect themselves and their families,” stated Dr. Munday in a press release distributed the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 26.

Dr. Brian Tyson questioned the Imperial County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Oct. 26, why despite his expertise on the matter, no county official has seen fit to consult him or his colleague to help formulate a better response to the pandemic. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

(This story was updated at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26.)