SANTA ANA (CNS) - As Orange County union, faith and business leaders called today for a reinstatement of a mask mandate that was rolled back to a “strong recommendation'' last week, opponents of face coverings drowned them out in a raucous scene outside the Board of Supervisors meeting.
The Orange County Labor Federation, an umbrella group that represents about 90 local unions, teamed up with religious and business leaders to call on county officials to reinstate the mandatory mask rule. The speakers at the news conference were muted by a vocal assault from opponents of face coverings, including one with a megaphone, who repeatedly shouted, “quarantine yourself!''
About 40 speakers signed up to heckle Orange County supervisors at their meeting today, but many backed off when they were told the only item on the agenda was to meet privately to discuss the pending bankruptcy of the Hertz rental car company after it was given one of the contracts at John Wayne Airport. Some of the speakers attempted to tie their opposition to masks and advocacy for opening up more businesses to the closed-session item.
Diana Corral, president of Local 2076 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was philosophical about the counter-protesters.
“It's everybody's right,'' Corral said. “I've been on the other side. We're all entitled to freedom of speech. Do I agree with them? No, but that's their right.''
Corral said her union represents county employees who handle eligibility claims for public support. She wants the county to implement a mask mandate for county offices where employees face a higher risk of infection since they're dealing with many people who cannot afford health care and are more prone to contracting coronavirus.
“We're here to ask the Board of Supervisors to implement policies to make masks mandatory wherever county facilities are to protect workers,'' Corral said.
Corral said as a Latina, she feels obligated to wear a face covering because Latinos are one of the ethnicities hardest hit by COVID-19 in Orange County. In the county, 39% of people who have contracted COVID-19 are Latino, and 36% of the fatalities involve Latinos.
Bassad Pesci of Huntington Beach, who used a megaphone to heckle the union leaders, told a City News Service reporter, “They're not organic, they're not natural. They're just doing the lackey work for the elites.''
Pesci claimed the decisions county officials are making regarding the pandemic are “not even backed by science.'' He alluded to a World Health Organization official's comment last week that asymptomatic transmissions of COVID-19 are rare, which mask opponents have cited to bolster their arguments that people don't need to wear masks or maintain social distancing. The WHO subsequently moved to clarify its position, saying much remains unknown about asymptomatic transmission of the virus.
“They don't know what they're doing,'' Pesci said.
The protesters held up signs that read, “Masks Suck!,'' “Show Your Smile,'' “Masks Today = Vaccines Tomorrow, Just Say No!'' and “George Floyd's death was a false flag. They want you to riot to install martial law.''
Dr. Nichole Quick, who issued the mask mandate last month as the county's chief health officer, abruptly resigned a week ago following threats and a protest in front of her home, as well as resistance from two Orange County supervisors.
Dr. Clayton Chau, the Health Care Agency director who took on the job of interim public health officer, rolled it back to a “strong recommendation'' to wear masks when residents cannot maintain six feet of physical distancing.
The union leaders in a news release stressed recent COVID-19 statistics, which include an uptick in hospitalizations and deaths in the past week, as a reason for requiring face coverings.
The county still mandates face coverings in food preparation and sales businesses and pharmacies. That ordinance was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in April. Quick's mandate extended it to other businesses.
Supervisor Andrew Do was the first on the board to advocate for face coverings in April. But Do criticized the union leaders' efforts.
“If they have a real problem, why not take it up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the California Department of Public Health,'' which do not require masks, but recommend them, he said.
“I think people are trying to make a political stand as opposed to one for health reasons,'' Do told City News Service.
Do said the group ought to lobby Gov. Gavin Newsom instead of the Board of Supervisors.
Orange County Labor Federation spokesman Luis Aleman said the group does not have a political agenda.
“We're saying let's put safety first and put politics aside,'' Aleman told CNS. “For us it's not a partisan issue, it's a public health issue.''
Union leaders are concerned that a spike in cases will lead to another state-ordered shutdown, which could affect their jobs as well as the health of their members, Aleman said.
The union group is also concerned about criticism of public health officials like Quick.
“Let's not undermine the credibility of our public health officers,'' Aleman said. “They have to support public health first, but they also have to respond to (political) pressure.''
Last week was Orange County's deadliest since the pandemic began with 36 fatalities from June 6 to Friday, and another 11 deaths Saturday and Sunday.