On Saturday, Oct. 25–like every Saturday since mid-July–supporters of President Donald Trump gathered in Beverly Gardens Park in front of the Beverly Hills sign. The rally has grown from a couple dozen, to a couple hundred, to more than two thousand on Oct. 24. The Courier has reported from each of the weekly “Freedom Rallies,” and has observed one constant fact. Namely, that most attendees are not wearing masks, in violation of a City ordinance.
While the City has issued more than 300 citations for lack of face coverings over the course of the pandemic, it has issued zero citations at the Freedom Rallies. Now, after months of watching unmasked rally-goers march down Rodeo Drive, residents of Beverly Hills have begun speaking up about the civil infraction.
“Masks are the single most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID,” said Pulminologist Dr. Andrew Wachtel, who decried what he viewed as the City’s inaction on a KNX10.70 radio program this week. “As a resident, I don’t want my co-residents to be exposed to any increased risk.”
Mayor Lester Friedman, who also took part in the radio segment, told the Courier, “It concerns and upsets me when people aren’t wearing masks. I will put on my mask as soon as I go out the door. Why people don’t do it, I’m not really sure.”
More than just a personal choice, the rally has made not wearing a mask a plank in its political platform. At the second Freedom Rally on July 25, organizer Shiva Bagheri led a small group to the house of Mayor Lester Friedman, where she urged him to open schools and end the City’s mask mandate.
At subsequent rallies, Bagheri has led a growing contingent through the Golden Triangle, sometimes calling out on a bullhorn to bystanders to take off their masks.
One of the headline speakers at the Oct. 25 rally was Dr. Simone Gold, a medical doctor who appeared in a since-banned viral video promoting misinformation about COVID-19 and hydroxychloroquine. Dr. Gold encouraged attendees not to wear masks, saying, “To the extent that you can, you should not comply with the masks.” She also described public health efforts as part of a “power grab.”
“You have to role model for other people what it’s like to be without the mask,” Dr. Gold told the crowd. “I’ve been stunned to learn that there are human beings who are genuinely afraid that they’re going to hurt another human being if they’re not wearing a mask. They may need to see you do it a hundred times, a hundred people wearing no masks, before they will stop being unafraid.”
Gold’s comments came one day after the United States registered its largest ever spike in COVID-19 cases. They also conflict with the consensus in the medical community, according to Co-Chief Infection Prevention Officer at UCLA Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice.
“Among the infectious disease community, there’s widespread support for mask wearing and physical distancing,” she told the Courier.
“Masks were used in the 1918 pandemic and seemed to have an effect, but there wasn’t great data on using them, particularly for asymptomatic individuals,” she said. “That’s what’s really novel about SARS-CoV-2, is that 48 hours before you get symptoms, you can still transmit the virus and there’s evidence that people who are asymptomatic can transmit the virus.”
“That’s why just having some people wear masks doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Everybody needs to wear them, because everybody is potentially at risk of transmitting.”
Dr. de St. Maurice pointed to a recent model published in the scientific journal Nature that projected a possible death count of 511,373 by Feb. 28. But the model also found that universal masking could save 129,574 lives.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get many calls regarding mask wearing,” said Councilmember Lili Bosse at the Oct. 27 Study Session. “When we do have these rallies, there’s people that aren’t wearing masks and there is a concern that we are not enforcing the ordinance that we have in place.”
Beverly Hills Police Department Interim Police Chief Dominick Rivetti addressed public concern about the state of mask-wearing at the rallies at the Study Session.
“We have been unable to enforce face coverings at these demonstrations and protests,” Rivetti told the Council. “It’s simply because we’re doing our best to keep the peace and to protect the city, and at the same time facilitating the demonstrators to exercise their first amendment rights.”
He cited as an example the Oct. 25 rally, which dwarfed all prior Freedom Rallies with a turnout of around 2,500. The department had only 60 officers to manage the event, he said.
Beyond the logistics of supervising the events, Rivetti also touched on the political element of the masks. “In this particular group, it’s part of their platform that they refuse to wear face coverings,” he said. “They think it’s their constitutional right not to wear them. And so, we’re going to get resistance right out the gate.”
Issues of enforcement stretched beyond mask noncompliance. The weekly rallies have also brought a crush of cars to Beverly Hills’ streets and parking spots. According to Bosse, members of the Council have fielded calls complaining about people parked in restricted areas.
Like with mask enforcement, Rivetti said that the department was stretched too thin to police parking. “We just simply have not had the people available to do the parking enforcement,” he told Councilmember Bosse.
“We’re not giving them a pass on purpose,” he said. “It’s just a question of what we can accomplish.”