Mayor Matt Hawkins

Sonora Mayor Matt Hawkins

A comment from Sonora Mayor Matt Hawkins at a city council meeting on Tuesday about the COVID-19 virus being spread via flatulence has spawned a public response ranging from mockery to disgust. 

"There's a bunch of ways that the virus can spread," Hawkins said, just before a vote to approve the use of face masks and capacity limits in city-owned facilities. 

"One of the things that happens with the virus is that people's stomach tends to get upset," he continued. "What happens when you get sick to your stomach? You pass a lot of gas. The masks don't stop the gas, and it's one way that you can get contagious. And that is science, that's a fact."

The comments were quickly recorded and reposted on social media, generating memes and ridicule. 

Hawkins was referred to by names such as "Mayor Flatulence," or, simply, "Mattulence." A photo showed a man with underwear over his pants with the caption, "I ate beans so per Dr. Quack Hawkins I am double masking."

Most commonly, Hawkins was targeted for spreading misinformation about the transmission of the virus and for undermining the use of masks as an effective public safety measure against COVID-19.

"I think it's had enough air time," Sonora City Councilwoman Colette Such said of the flap over Hawkins’ flatulence comments, adding that the council does not share his opinion on the efficacy of masks or how the virus can be spread.

Dr. Eric Sergienko, Interim Tuolumne County health officer, said on Friday that flatulence was less likely to carry viral particles than feces. 

"As far as farting or flatulence, probably a lot less likely," Sergienko said. "The difference between my mouth right now and the other part of my body is I've got at least two layers of cloth covering that. So maybe there's some reason for why we do that." 

Sergienko said there was some concern about the aerosolization of feces in toilet bowls, which is why it’s recommended to wear a mask in public restrooms, but he noted it was much more common for viral cultures to live in the lungs, nasal passages and mouth and be spread through respiratory means.

The Tuolumne County Public Health Department has since posted on a thread related to Hawkins’ comments.

"While flatulence can carry micro-particle which have the capacity to spread bacteria, there is no published data that demonstrates transmission this way," the department said. "It is extremely unlikely that COVID-19 could be spread in this manner, especially if a person is wearing clothes."  

Hawkins told The Union Democrat on Friday his comments were taken out of context, saying he used flatulence as an example to criticize the efficacy of masking.

"I was suggesting that anything is possible and these particular strands of COVID, nobody can get a handle on," Hawkins told The Union Democrat on Friday. "You can smell a flatulence particle through cheap little masks that are being handed out everywhere … I do believe masks are a decent preventative, but they are being treated as an absolute preventative." 

The comments, he added, underscored what he characterized as legitimate doubts about the primary public safety protocols battling the spread of COVID-19: masking and the vaccine. 

"By the grace of god, we got this vaccine when we did. My question is, why are people still dying who got the vaccine?" 

The instances of fully vaccinated people dying have been extremely rare. In Tuolumne County, three out of the 96 people who have died from COVID-19 — which includes at least 35 since the vaccines became widely available — were fully vaccinated.

A study published on Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated this spring and summer.

The report found that all three vaccines currently available overall were 82% effective at preventing COVID-related hospitalization.

“The bottom line is this: We have the scientific tools we need to turn the corner on this pandemic,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a White House press briefing on Friday. “Vaccination works and will protect us from the severe complications of COVID-19. It will protect our children and allow them to stay in school for safe in-person learning.”

Hawkins has not released his vaccination status to the public, citing it as a privacy issue. He said he still believed COVID-19 should be taken seriously, including protective measures like masking and vaccination, based on a person's personal choices. 

Hawkins said he received more than a dozen calls and at least three emails about the incident, with most of them signalling their support for him.

"It's that type of propaganda that is really taking away from the discussion," Hawkins said of the ridicule he’s received. "Taking the time to sit there and ridicule, that's fine if that makes them feel better and they're able to take out their avenue of anger on somebody, I'm glad they have that."  

The CDC has reinforced that masking reduces the spread of COVID-19 by reducing "the emission of virus-laden droplets."

"Masks also help reduce inhalation of these droplets by the wearer (“filtration for wearer protection”)," the CDC continued. "The community benefit of masking for SARS-CoV-2 control is due to the combination of these effects; individual prevention benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks consistently and correctly."

Hawkins ultimately voted against the mask requirement on Tuesday because he said he did not get a guarantee that Such and City Councilwoman Ann Segerstrom, who have recently participated via Zoom, would return to the meetings in person.

"We're making the public do something we're keeping ourselves out of,” Hawkins said, referring to the requirement that members of the public be present in person to provide oral comments on meeting topics. “I think that's elitist.”

Such previously advocated for allowing the public to participate in the meetings remotely, though Hawkins was opposed.

Hawkins said on Friday that the city “did not have the power” to provide remote access to the public because of previously cited staffing issues. When asked if he would support the concept if staffing issues were resolved, he didn’t say one or the other and said he would “address it then.”

The agenda item on requiring masks passed with Hawkins being the sole opposing vote to Such, Segerstrom and Councilman Jim Garaventa, while Councilman Mark Plummer was absent. 

Such acknowledged she qualified her commitment to return in person with the expectation that the mask requirement would be enforced during meetings. 

"I'm happy to come back, but I'm not going to be in an enclosed room with unmasked people," she said.

Such said she plans to attend the next meeting in person. 

Sergienko characterized the controversy on Friday through the lens of "uncertainty." 

"By making stuff up, a person creates a level of certainty," he said. 

Sergienko said the idea that someone not having to wear a mask because they flatulate was a way of rationalizing risk. 

"I don't have to wear a mask because I fart," he said. "Is that truly rational thought? No, but it allows you to not take action, to return some sort of normality." 

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.