City Council has little control over local pandemic restrictions, memo says

As new state and county measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic take effect this week, questions of what the City Council could do as a legislative body were addressed in a memo released by the city this week.

The answer: Not much.

While the council has passed a number of pandemic-related measures, there is little the council could do to speed up openings of certain business sectors as state emergency orders take precedent. The body also lacks authority over local health officers, who are responsible for analyzing data and making decisions to protect the public’s health, according to the city attorney’s office.

While certain local ordinances can coexist under state mandates, they can’t conflict with state emergency orders. Local health orders can, however, be more restrictive than the state’s emergency orders, but not less.

Although Long Beach has its own health department, the council has no ability to direct it to move in a given direction, the memo said.

“State law grants local health officers this broad authority because local health officers have a duty to protect the public health and possess specialized medical knowledge, expertise, skills, and training to prevent the spread of communicable diseases,” the memo said. “Furthermore, local health officers have a duty to prevent the spread of contagious, infectious, or communicable diseases, even when there is no declared public health emergency.”

The city’s charter also prohibits council members from giving direction to city employees in the city manager departments.

The request for the memo came at the City Council’s Oct. 20 meeting in which members of the council sought clarity on their ability to influence local pandemic protocols.

It has enacted a number of measures since March, including protecting residents in the city from evictions, creating a host of worker protections and even temporarily shielding residents from street sweeping enforcement. However, it has been unable to do much in the way of setting rules for businesses to reopen.

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo said last month that some residents felt like people with no accountability to residents—county and local health officials—were making decisions that were impacting businesses across the city. She asked for answers as to how the council could be at the table to determine future policies, ones that are currently “unfairly applied” across the region.

Others simply wanted something in writing that would spell out what the council can and cannot do. The city attorney’s memo seems to have provided the council with a political shield of sorts as they can now tell frustrated constituents that local mandates and rules governing the speed of reopening are largely out of their hands.

Councilwoman Suzie Price, who led the effort to request the memo, said there may be an opening contained within the 10-page memo. The council can conduct study sessions and take public testimony from individual business sectors.

Price said that those sessions could be useful in providing expert input from people who work in the affected businesses, which would help inform decisions over what can open and with what modifications, and then seek approval to amend the local ordinance.

She pointed to the discrepancies between medical and non-medical massages, where chiropractors were largely allowed to operate for months while personal care spas and other massage businesses had to wait until October to receive clearance to reopen.

“What’s different about the activity?” Price said. “That’s the part that’s frustrating to me. We should be limiting the activity that is causing the spread.”

The memo was released same week that county officials have announced they will clamp down further on local retail and restaurant guidance.

Price was part of a contingent of council members who had introduced an item to advocate for indoor dining in the city, but the item was pulled from Tuesday’s council meeting agenda. The prospect of tighter restrictions could portend a troubling future for business corridors in the city, she said.

“If we start to lose restaurants, if we start to lose those we’re going to have to rebuild these business corridors from scratch and that’s going to be a huge lift for the city,” Price said.

The memo addressed the city’s ability to move through the state’s tiered model of reopening and noted that while Long Beach is one of a few cities in the state with its own health jurisdiction, the state requires its COVID figures to be included with Los Angeles County and the City of Pasadena, something that could keep Long Beach mired in the state’s most restrictive purple tier for some time.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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