The Palm Springs City Council voted to require either proof of vaccination status or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours for large, ticketed events like Splash House, which will take place for the first time since 2019 over the next two weekends. However, as of this writing, Palm Springs is the only valley city to have enacted mask or vaccination mandates due to the Delta variant-driven surge. Credit: Splash House June 2019 photo by Guillermo Prieto/Irockphotos.net.

COVID-19 is resurging in the Coachella Valley—a trend that began in June and has been rapidly accelerating ever since.

Meanwhile, local public officials have largely remained on the sidelines as the Delta variant has run amok. The city of Palm Springs last week voted to require that everyone, vaccinated or not, mask up indoors in public spaces, and to phase in a vaccination or negative-test requirement for indoor bars and restaurants, among other requirements; Cathedral City followed suit on Aug. 11. However, as of this writing, other local government agencies have declined to take action—with one notable exception that, in fact, led the way.

On July 28, Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga issued a strongly worded public statement, on behalf of the DHCD Board of Directors, urging all eligible unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated immediately in order to protect themselves, their family members and the community at-large.

In part, the statement read: “The Desert Healthcare District and Foundation Board is calling for swift action from the Coachella Valley’s business and educational leaders to protect residents from COVID-19, as hospital admissions dramatically increase across Riverside County due to the Delta variant. On Tuesday, July 27, the board strongly recommended full vaccination for employees and all eligible students returning to campus for in-person learning, as well as recommended that everyone wears a mask in public indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status. These community health and safety recommendations would remain in place until a vaccination rate of at least 80 percent is reached in the valley, according to a report from the Healthcare District and Foundation. More than 238,000 people have been fully vaccinated so far, but an additional 106,707 individuals must be fully vaccinated to accomplish this goal.”

In a recent interview, the Independent asked Dr. Barzaga what spurred him and the DHCD board to speak out while other local leaders remained mute.

“From a health-care agency perspective, I believe we have that ethical responsibility to advocate for this,” Barzaga said. “And as a health-care professional, I feel the same way. I think it is imperative that we talk about a (COVID-19 vaccine) mandate in that ethical context, because we’re living in a closely connected society, and some people choosing not to be vaccinated is creating a safety and public-health risk for the rest of our community. I think that the libertarian ideas which might be the justification that some people use not to be vaccinated were OK 200 years ago, when we had a population density of three people for every 10 square miles, but that’s not the case today.”

The valley’s three local school districts are all opening campuses to students and staff in August, and Barzaga expressed disappointment that vaccinations were not being mandated for everyone (age 12 and older) by the administrators at each district.

“From my perspective, I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t yet have a requirement in place,” Barzaga said. “We have other requirements for vaccinations in place such as diphtheria, varicella (chickenpox), pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis and polio. All those and some other vaccines are mandated to enroll in schools. My recommendation is that the COVID-19 vaccine is added to those requirements.”

One could argue that the largest positive impact on vaccination numbers in the valley would come as the result of a mandate or requirement issued by the Riverside County Public Health Department, or as an action taken by the county’s Board of Supervisors. However, a majority of supervisors have said such mandates will not be issued.

Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga.

“I think it would be important for the state and the county to look into what language they can use,” Barzaga said, “and what regulatory power they have in their chapters, that they can exercise to the maximum of their capacity to ensure that the highest number of people that we can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated. I think that’s imperative for our community.”

Even though the DHCD has no legal authority to enforce mask or vaccination mandates, Barzaga said it was important for the district to speak out.

“The Desert Healthcare District chose to use the words ‘strongly recommending’ the vaccine for everyone, which I think is a politically correct term,” he said. “There are some agencies who are in a position to mandate, or require, that everyone (under their influence) is vaccinated. It is an issue of feeling a deep sense of leadership and social responsibility to say, ‘I am in a position to require my employees, my students, my staff to be vaccinated. It’s the right thing to do for everyone.’ I hope to see that there are agencies that take this opportunity to exercise that leadership seriously.”

The Palm Springs City Council, in Barzaga’s words, took the opportunity to exercise that leadership a week after the DHCD statement, on Aug 4. Cathedral City’s council did the same on Aug. 11.

The Palm Springs City Council voted unanimously to enact the indoor mask and vaccination/testing requirements—as well as a mandate that anyone attending ticketed large events, such as this month’s Splash House weekends, either have proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. However, the 5-0 vote only came after a spirited discussion on whether mandates or recommendations were best for the city.

At one point late in the session, Mayor Christy Holstege mentioned that three of her colleagues had spoken out in favor of recommendations rather than mandates.

“I talked to a number of businesses, and they’re actually asking us to mandate it,” she said. “So I’m really concerned that … recommendations just aren’t working, unfortunately. You know, the recommendation or even the requirement that unvaccinated people wear a mask, I don’t think that’s happening broadly. The honor system here is just not working. So, I’m a little concerned about putting the onus on workers and employers of these businesses to police these policies. What I keep hearing from workers and businesses is that they want to show the city seal on the order as protection, so that they’re not engaging or policing these rules.”

After the 5-0 votes on three separate motions, Councilmember Lisa Middleton delivered a pointed plea to any members of the community.

“Vaccinations are available. If you have not been vaccinated, please go out and get a vaccination. It saves lives,” Middleton said. “There are over 600,000 Americans, members of families from all over the place, who are dead. Each and every one of us has lost family or close personal friends. The vaccinations have been administered to millions of your fellow Americans, and it’s helped save lives. Whatever your reluctance, consult with your physician. Go to the person who you trust to take care of your family in times of crisis and medical emergencies, when lives are at stake. … Please get a vaccination. You’re putting your life at risk by not doing so, and you’re putting others’ lives at risk by not doing so.

“None of us want to be doing the things that we are doing here tonight, and the more that individuals voluntarily go out and get that vaccination, the more lives we will save, and the earlier we’ll be able to say that we have lived through this crisis.”

Updated on Aug. 12 with information on Cathedral City’s vote.

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...