Healdsburg councilmember: ‘I’m not vaccinated’

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City of Healdsburg Councilmember Skylaer Palacios. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
City of Healdsburg Councilmember Skylaer Palacios. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Healdsburg councilmember: ‘I’m not vaccinated’ – Two hours into its regular online meeting Monday, the Healdsburg City Council suddenly wandered into the vaccination divide when one of its members revealed she has not received the coronavirus vaccine.

The tumble came during an agenda item that appeared to be routinely procedural: When would the council be returning to in-person meetings, and under what parameters? Things took a turn when Councilmember Skylaer Palacios publicly divulged a piece of information that had been an open secret in Healdsburg city government for three months.

“I will just say publicly that I am not vaccinated,” Palacios said into her computer camera. “And I have not been wanting to say this for a while because it’s my own health situation, and I don’t feel like anyone should have to publicly say that. I don’t think normalizing that is OK.”

The remainder of the discussion on that item was brief and respectful, and it’s unlikely that Palacios’ statement fundamentally changed the outcome of the vote. The five-person council agreed that its next meeting, on Nov. 15, will be a hybrid session, with proof of vaccination required for entry to the council chambers.

But with the public debate over vaccine mandates reaching a fever pitch as schools, businesses and state governments weigh their approaches, Palacios’ big reveal landed like a piano on the low-key civic meeting.

“It surprised me a little bit where the conversation led,” fellow councilmember Ariel Kelley said Tuesday. “I didn’t think we’d be speaking about our personal experiences. But this is one of the interesting and challenging things about COVID. It’s not just a decision for ourselves and our families and the people in our spheres. As a council, we have to think about the general public.”

When Palacios was voted into office exactly one year ago Wednesday at the age of 25, she was part of a wave heralding political change throughout Sonoma County. A Healdsburg native with both Black and Indigenous heritage, she advocated for more cultural awareness and diversity of governmental participation.

Now, it’s clear, Palacios is bucking the trend when it comes to coronavirus vaccination, too. In a county where more than 85% of residents 12 and older have received at least one dose — and a city where the acceptance rate is running about 95% — she stands apart.

Palacios declined an interview request from The Press Democrat, saying she didn’t trust the news organization to present her story “clearly and in totality.” But she did explain her position in general terms during the Monday meeting.

“I am not vaccinated because of several reasons,” she said. “Logically, my body, with an allergy that I have, and then spiritually. There’s just a lot that we still don’t know about these. And I could go and talk about it longer, but I will spare you all that.”

Palacios did expand her thoughts a few minutes later, noting that a vaccinated person also can acquire the virus as a so-called breakthrough case, and arguing that scientific data suggests immunity begins to diminish after six months. Her main concern, she said, was the possibility of creating a barrier that allows some members of the public to enter the room and address councilmembers in person, while others have to call in or connect via the internet.

“We’re a public entity for the people, and we’re discouraging people from coming to meetings,” Palacios said. “Just that is highly discomforting to me.”

She added that she gets tested for the coronavirus weekly. “So I don’t feel like I pose a threat to people, and I disagree with that sentiment in the media a lot,” she said.

Palacios is not the first local official to miss the vaccination train. In August, the Lake County Record-Bee quoted Lakeport Mayor Kenny Parlet as saying, “We know the vaccine is lethal, and we also know that it does not prevent COVID.” Parlet called the entire pandemic a hoax. That same month, Petaluma City Councilmember D’Lynda Fischer refused to tell the Argus-Courier whether she had gotten her shots.

The Healdsburg situation would probably have come to a head sooner were it not for spikes in local infection rates, caused by the delta variant of the virus, that convinced the city council there to back away from meeting in person, as it had discussed with city staff on more than one occasion. Now, with rates — and especially hospitalizations — on the decline, the council took up the matter of a return to chambers Monday.

All agreed that participants in any in-person meetings should come fully masked for the time being, and remain socially distanced. The Nov. 15 session is expected to be limited to 50% capacity.

There was discussion Monday of allowing a negative-test option, but several members rejected the idea.

“What we’ve often seen is someone gets tested on Friday morning at 9 a.m.,” Kelley said that night. “They go to lunch with somebody on Saturday and are exposed, they get their results on Monday morning saying that they don’t have COVID, and Monday night they’re out with friends, and Tuesday they start feeling sick. The test is just one snapshot in time, but it can quickly no longer be relevant.”

The Healdsburg City Council members wanted a higher level of protection. Their meetings are frequently attended by elderly residents of the community, who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. And some of the council representatives have their own concerns. Mayor Evelyn Mitchell is older, and Vice Mayor Ozzy Jimenez has survived blood clots, he said.

When they meet Nov. 15, it will be their first time as a governmental body. Neither Kelley nor Jimenez have sat in the chambers yet — at least not as council members — and Evelyn Mitchell hasn’t done so as mayor, a position she filled after Leah Gold resigned under pressure in June 2020. All of them are looking forward to the experience.

They wish Palacios could join them, but that seems like an impossibility until COVID restrictions are dropped, or unless she changes her mind on vaccination.

“It bothers me that anyone takes that position,” Mitchell said Tuesday, while taking pains to praise Palacios’ commitment and courage in other areas. “I’m a pretty strong believer that we all make our own choices, but we also need to protect each other. To me, it’s a matter of safety, not a philosophical debate.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or [email protected] On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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PHIL BARBER

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