The Healdsburg City Council was accused of racially discriminating against one of its members this week after she was not allowed to attend the council’s regular meeting in person because she is not vaccinated against COVID-19.
The council returned to in-person meetings Monday with a requirement that people in attendance be fully vaccinated, while those not attending in person could continue to participate virtually.
Councilwoman Skylaer Palacios was the only council member to attend virtually instead of in person after she revealed at the council’s Nov. 1 meeting that she had not been vaccinated, citing skepticism that the three approved vaccines effectively prevent contraction of the virus.
Palacios, as well as several public commenters, argued that her exclusion from participating in the meeting in person, as a woman with Black and Indigenous heritage, was effectively the same as the racial segregation codified by Jim Crow laws in the southern United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
“We cannot have certain options for engagement for certain members of the public and not for others,” Palacios said Monday. “These policies can replicate the Jim Crow-era laws of separate but equal. Let us learn from the past and move forward justly.”
According to Sonoma County vaccination data, Healdsburg has one of the highest uptake rates in the county for eligible residents, as 85.5 percent of residents ages 5 and up have received at least one dose.
The city is also overwhelmingly white, with roughly 80 percent of residents identifying as such, according to 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Shelby Pryor, a public commenter who identified himself as a Black man, argued that Palacios is the only member of the council who is effectively representing people of color who live in Healdsburg.
Pryor added the suggestion that Vice Mayor Osvaldo Jimenez, the only other person of color on the council, was more inclined to follow the lead of the council’s three white members and “turned his back” on Palacios.
It was unclear whether Pryor or the other members of the public who commented during the meeting are Healdsburg residents.
“If we continue this rate that we’re going, and we continue to get put in these positions as people who are minorities, we are not going to continue to tolerate the same behaviors from 1964,” Pryor said.
Councilwoman Ariel Kelley called it “disturbing” to be accused that the council was racially targeting Palacios.
She also noted that while Black residents only account for 1.5 percent of the vaccine recipients in Sonoma County, the proportion of the county’s Black residents who have received at least one vaccine dose is higher than that of the county’s white, Asian and Hispanic and Latino populations.
“If we’re saying, ‘you must be vaccinated to enter the room,’ we’re being accused of excluding African American residents,” she said. “But the data shows that, by proportion, our African American residents are the highest-vaccinated population demographic in Sonoma County. So those two things don’t statistically add up for me.”
Palacios also cited a handful of data points from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, arguing, as many public health officials have, that the available vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing contraction of the virus appears to decline roughly six months after completing a vaccination series.
Public health officials have argued that waning of effectiveness against contracting the virus is evidence that adults who received their second vaccine dose at least six months ago should get a booster dose to bolster their immune response.
“If the argument is to create the best protocols to protect the public against COVID, we would be testing everybody sometime after the six-month mark of their vaccine unless they have received the booster,” Palacios said. “But I will pick my battles, and simply urge the council to strongly consider a testing option to attend our council meetings instead.”
The council’s other four members appeared taken aback by Palacios’ allegations, arguing that she was very much participating in the meeting even if she was not physically in the council chambers.
Councilman David Hagele called Palacios’ suggestion that she and other unvaccinated Healdsburg residents are being excluded from the meeting “absolutely false” and suggested it was easier than ever to participate, noting that one of the meeting’s virtual public commenters said she had pulled her car over to give her thoughts.
“Council member Palacios, I see you right in front of me,” Hagele said. “People at home can see you and hear you, and so you are part of this meeting, you are part of this City Council.”
Some speakers also argued that the council targeted Palacios because, in theory, she has less standing as the council’s youngest member at 25 years old and was only elected for the first time last November.
Others lauded the council for holding hybrid meetings, arguing that it made it much easier to attend even when they can’t be in the council chambers.
Jessica Pilling called it “very selfish” to make the council’s meeting requirements about race and said the hybrid meeting model made it much easier for her to participate even with three children.
“I appreciate the fact that we can call in or Zoom in to participate because otherwise, you’re going to lose a lot of the population,” she said. “(6 p.m.) meetings, they don’t work for a large portion of the public.”
Jimenez framed the hybrid meeting decision as one of keeping the public safe, adding that he would not feel comfortable in a room with unvaccinated people for several hours because he has a blood clot condition.
“Our role, our responsibility as a council is to think about the public and the public good,” he said. “And we are here in a public space … I’m not here to argue on the science, but I am looking at this as setting a policy and leadership for our community as a whole.”
Mayor Evelyn Mitchell was somewhat pessimistic about the rift between Palacios and the council in general, saying that neither party would change the other’s mind and it was essentially a waste of time.
“People feel they’re right and they can come up with all kinds of statistics and things that prove their position, and I don’t think anybody ever wins because you don’t change people’s mind on this issue,” she said.
The council ultimately voted 4-1, with Palacios opposed, to maintain a hybrid meeting format and vaccination requirement without a testing option for the foreseeable future, with the caveat that the council could reconsider its meeting protocols at any time.
Kelley argued that the pandemic is not yet over, even in areas with high vaccination rates, and that case counts are expected to rise into the winter, when people are more likely to gather with others indoors.
“I think it would be very wise for us, as we move into this in-person meeting for the first time in a year and a half, to be cautious, to be conservative, because we don’t know what’s coming next,” she said. “And the data is showing us that it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”