After a tense, hour-long debate that called into question the equality of hybrid meetings for those who are unvaccinated, the Healdsburg City Council voted 4-1 to approve hybrid meetings and the city’s proof of vaccination requirement for attending in-person meetings.
Councilmember Skylaer Palacios, who called the vaccine requirement exclusionary and
equated the hybrid meeting method to the “separate but equal” mindset of segregation, held the dissenting vote.
On Nov. 1, the Healdsburg City Council decided to return to in-person council meetings in a hybrid format, meaning council members and the public could attend online via Zoom or in person if able to provide proof of vaccination.
While some entities and governing bodies allow proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test for attendance to in-person meetings, most of the council members weren’t comfortable with allowing the negative test option.
As the discussion turned to council members’ individual comfort level regarding proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for meetings, the vaccination status of the council members themselves came up.
Councilmember Ariel Kelley said while she’s vaccinated she wouldn’t want to allow a negative COVID-19 test as a substitute for proof of vaccination for entry to city hall.
“The test is just one snapshot of time, but it can very quickly no longer be relevant if you are exposed after that moment in time,” Kelley said during the Nov. 1 meeting.
Vice Mayor Ozzy Jimenez, who is vaccinated and has an underlying health condition that puts him at higher risk, echoed Kelley and said he would feel better about requiring vaccination and proof of vaccination for entry. Mayor Evelyn Mitchell and Councilmember David Hagele, both of whom are vaccinated, agreed with Kelley and Jimenez regarding the vaccine mandate.
Palacios, who was reluctant to divulge her vaccination status, said did not agree with requiring proof of vaccination in order to attend meetings in-person. She noted that while she’s not vaccinated for several reasons, she gets tested weekly for COVID-19.
“I get tested weekly so I don’t feel like I pose a threat to people and I disagree with that sentiment in the media, so I’m just really worried about creating a division. I think we have a highly vaccinated population in Healdsburg, but I am just highly uncomfortable with that decision,” Palacios said during the Nov. 1 meeting.
In a 17-minute long video posted to YouTube a few days after the council’s Nov. 1 decision, Palacios elaborated on why she isn’t vaccinated and shared her feelings about the vaccine and why she wanted to speak up on the matter.
The video sparked a flurry of bitter debate on social media from those for and against the vaccine and from those advocating that one’s own health and the decisions regarding one’s health is their choice alone.
As the Healdsburg City Council meeting kicked off in-person and on Zoom on Monday evening, Nov. 15, one of the council’s first orders of business was the consent calendar where council members can approve previously discussed or routine items without discussion or individual motions.
Items from the calendar can, however, be pulled for discussion and the majority of the council needs to agree to pull an item.
One item on the consent calendar was the authorization of hybrid meetings with a vaccine requirement for in-person meetings.
Mayor Mitchell pulled the hybrid meeting item since she said she had “every expectation that this item will be pulled off consent.”
“I still firmly believe that the fully vaccinated mandate is the safest way to conduct these meetings, but in the interest of compromise I want to ask the council to consider a testing option so that we can have more people attend these meetings,” Mitchell said. “I am not willing to entertain a discussion of vaccination versus non-vax. I don’t think it is a philosophical discussion I am willing to participate in. Hopefully we can focus on the testing option.”
However, the discussion strayed exactly into what Mitchell wanted to avoid. Many concerns surrounding equality, segregation and representation were brought up by Palacios and several public commenters.
“I do think we should consider a testing option not just for myself, but I did receive emails from Healdsburg residents that aren’t vaccinated as well,” Palacios said.
She said one emailer specifically said he would have liked to attend council meetings and is frustrated that he now can’t.
“Because this is an issue that is based on science and although I was told that sharing the science wouldn’t be effective, I do still want to do that and share data only from the FDA website because I believe that is how we should probably inform our decisions related to public health,” Palacios said. “This study is from the vaccines and related biological products advisory committee briefing document.”
Palacios said the document says data from Israel suggests reduced effectiveness against severe disease could eventually follow observed reductions in effectiveness against COVID and that reductions in effectiveness against infections could lead to increased transmission.
“If the argument is to create the best protocols to protect the public against COVID, we would be testing everybody after the six month mark of their vaccine unless they have received the booster, but I will pick my battles and simply urge the council to strongly consider a testing option to attend our council meetings instead of only allowing vaccinated individuals to attend in person,” Palacios said. “If the FDA’s main purpose is to review scientific data for approval of drugs and vaccines and even they cannot be sure that the approved vaccines reduce transmission of the virus after extension research has been analysed, why does anyone else — including our council — think making laws on this assumption is just when these laws are exclusionary. We cannot have certain options for engagement for certain members of the public and not for others. These policies can replicate the Jim Crow era laws of separate but equal. Let us learn from the past and move forward justly.”
Following her statement, Kelley, Hagele and Jimenez said they still wanted to move forward with only allowing proof of vaccination for entry to in-person council meetings.
Kelley said she would prefer to sit in a small room with those who are vaccinated since “it is shown as the best way to limit transmission of the virus.”
“I think this topic touches really close to home for me personally since I am the other person of color on this dais. I think being on this dais comes with a certain amount of privilege and also leadership that we have to take within our community and I want to also say that our decision in making this policy wasn’t exclusionary to you Councilmember Palacios,” Jimenez said. “There is a hybrid model where you can participate and I did say in the previous meeting that I am part of the vulnerable population and have a blood clot condition, so I would not feel comfortable being in a room for four hours with an individual who is not vaccinated.”
During public comment, seven people were in support of Palacios’ stance on requiring vaccination to attend in-person council meetings and echoed her concerns regarding the vaccine mandate, segregation and inequality.
Many of those seven also voiced concerns about Palacios being unfairly segregated from the meetings and many urged that she be allowed to take her seat at the council chambers.
“Our community is not demanding too much, we just want a compassionate and just community. I’d like to inquire why your incredible Councilmember Skylaer Palacios, an Afro-Latino woman, has been denied entrance to the council chambers. Is this the city’s way of recreating the Jim Crow laws? I’m sure that you are already aware that minorities have the lowest vaccination rate in this county. We will not be silent about this, we will continue to press the council for a response until Ms. Palacios is allowed to fill her seat in the chamber as she wholeheartedly deserves,” said Adina Flores.
Shelby Pryor, a local activist who’s working in the community to achieve equality, echoed Flores’ comments.
“It is interesting to me that Ms. Palacios was not incorporated in this event this evening. Of course you put her on as long as she was on her computer and she was away from you, but these are laws that have been practiced by segregation for a long period of time,” Pryor said. “I am a Black nationalist, but before I am a Black nationalist, I am a human rights advocate and this is something that disturbs me greatly. I think it is interesting that as we continue to go through these eras from 1964 till now, we’re still fighting for rights as minorities … The first thing we should be doing is looking towards a goal which is managing individuals in a way of love, peace and respect, versus control and a way to make their dignity feel less.”
There were also several speakers who spoke in favor of the vaccine mandate.
“I’ve spoken before this council whether on Zoom or in-person many times in the past and you may recall that before this issue of vaccination ever came up, I urged the council to maintain this hybrid Zoom/in-person meeting option into the future indefinitely because I believe that that is more equitable. There are certain people that are not able to get here at 6 o’clock on a meeting night and I think it broadens democracy and broadens input to maintain this hybrid structure,” said Deb Kravitz.
Jessica Pilling, who said she appreciates the fact that she can call into the meeting since she has to stay home with her three kids, opined that the issue isn’t about race but is about public health.
“This is not an issue about race. This is not about equity, everyone can participate. This is a public health issue and that is what it’s about and I do think it is a good mandate to have … and I do think that people need to feel comfortable and have the ability to come there without fear of getting COVID,” Pilling said.
Unhappy with the council’s decision, Pryor wrote in an email to SoCoNews, “Me and my girlfriend will be working very closely with fellow allied organizations to start a protest of the city and its policies towards these mandatory vaccine mandates and will be protesting all local businesses practicing this racist and classist system. We believe in science. We also believe in choice.”
In an interview with SoCoNews, he said he is also planning a public forum on Nov. 26 in downtown Santa Rosa where people from both ends of the spectrum on the issue are invited to come and speak or share their stories and experiences.
“We’re going to start there,” he said. He said he’s invited local elected officials and school boards to attend the meeting.
He said in his email he won’t allow anyone to bring hardship to Palacios and took issue with the council’s decision on the vaccine mandate, saying it was a move of discrimination against someone’s own health decision.
“Their decision to discriminate against someone’s personal health decisions and the known disproportional effects it has on the communities of color is staring them in the face because the first person this decision affects is a woman of color,” Pryor said.