Public health officer defends face covering order

Some residents have opposed the mandatory mask rule from the start.

When discussion at the June 9 special meeting of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors turned to the local face covering order, interim Public Health Officer David Ghilarducci spoke about his decision to keep the order in place, despite criticism from a group of residents regarding the effectiveness of masks at slowing the spread of COVID-19. He also said the county is working to modify its mandate to include recently opened businesses and activities, as the order that went into effect at the end of April focuses on essential businesses only.

According to Ghilarducci, a survey showed that 41 of 47 California’s public health officers support a statewide face covering order.

“Most counties in the state do have mandatory orders,” Ghilarducci said. “Most who do not tend to be more rural and have very few cases, much lower numbers of cases than we have.”

He added that San Benito County’s mandatory order is beneficial because it works as another layer of protection against spreading the virus, especially with asymptomatic people—which he said account for 30% of those infected—and people who are presymptomatic. 

The mask order benefits businesses and the economy, Ghilarducci said, because it protects workers from infection, helps businesses attract customers who are still afraid of going out, and shifts blame or criticism from businesses to himself.

When Supervisor Peter Hernadez asked why counties vary when it comes to face covering orders, Ghilarducci named nine counties that don’t have one. Using Ventura County as an example, he said the public health officer strongly recommends masks but doesn’t require them because he doesn’t feel cloth coverings are enough, and prefers medical masks. 

“He is in support of it, but not is in support of cloth facial masks,” Ghilarducci said. “The cloth facial masks are a compromise that we had to come up with because of the severe shortage of medical grade PPE [personal protective equipment].”

In answering questions from supervisors—and residents criticizing the face covering order at every meeting since it went into effect—Ghilarducci said that cloth masks are not perfect. He clarified that the order does not require residents to wear a mask when they can maintain six feet or more social distance because coverings don’t “make a lot of difference” as a protection layer even if residents momentarily cross paths walking around town. 

“It’s when you get into places where other people are and you are not able to maintain that separation,” Ghilarducci said. “That’s where someone sneezes and coughs, it’s not going to be depositing viruses on common touch surfaces like near a cash register or something like that. That’s the logic behind it.”

Ghilarducci said the county’s mask order might not be lifted until there is a method to control or stop the spread of COVID-19, such as medication. 

At the meeting, Health and Human Services Agency Director Tracey Belton presented updated data on the county’s coronavirus test site, as well as new features of the COVID-19 dashboard.

As of June 10, 109 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in San Benito County since February. Eleven are active patients, 96 have recovered and two have died.

Belton said that of the 2,227 people tested by OptumServe at the Veterans Memorial Building, 25 tests came back positive. There are still 1,195 test results pending, including 10 from May 5, the day testing began for high-risk groups such as health care workers and first responders.

San Benito County Public Information Officer David Westrick said OptumServe is trying to figure out what issues are causing the delay. 

New features of the COVID-19 dashboard include tabs that show which testing site positive test results are coming from. Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital has reported the last two positives.


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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is a San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.