Long Beach health officer recommends virtual public meetings (again) to slow virus spread

A new law that went into effect Friday could allow Long Beach and other cities to keep limiting in-person participation at public meetings as long as a state of emergency stays in effect for the pandemic and certain other requirements to allow virtual participation are met.

Long Beach Health Officer Anissa Davis sent a memo to all meeting bodies this week recommending that they implement the rules under Assembly Bill 361, which allows waiving some open meeting rules, paving the way for more virtual meetings during the pandemic.

Davis recommended that all public meetings bodies, including the City Council, consider moving to the virtual format.

“With us still having significant transmission of the highly transmissible delta variant and substantial community transmission it’s important to continue to use all the tools we can to reduce transmission and virtual meetings to promote physical distancing is one of those tools,” Davis said in an email Friday.

Davis said that the city’s health department has not attributed any outbreaks to public meetings in Long Beach and that masking, physical distancing, being vaccinated, good ventilation and staying home while sick are all tools that can reduce transmission in indoor settings.

While the city’s case rate and positivity rates have declined since mid-August, when the city was seeing nearly 40 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of nearly 9%, Davis said transmission due to the delta variant is still widespread.

The city’s current case rate is 13.5 cases per 100,000 residents with a test positivity rate of 2.3%, according to the city’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

The City Council returned to in-person meetings July 6 after over a year of virtual meetings. The capacity in the council chamber is limited with seats being blocked off to ensure social distancing. Everyone attending is required to wear a mask at all times, regardless of vaccination status.

AB 361 allows members to participate in meetings remotely without noticing the public about where they’re meeting from. It also allows members to meet from outside the city’s jurisdictional boundaries and requires public access to public comment by phoning in or through platforms like Zoom.

Pablo Rubio, an analyst in the City Clerk’s office, said that the rules of AB 361 would only go into effect if a meeting is made fully virtual and members of the public are not allowed to attend in person. Otherwise, regular city rules would remain in place.

Rubio said that as of Friday there were no inquiries about moving commission or committee meetings to a virtual setting, but noted that the memo is only one day old. The Oct. 5 City Council meeting is still scheduled to be held in person, but any changes to that body or other public meetings would be noticed on their next published agendas, Rubio said.

“Commissions will most likely move to virtual meetings, but council will still be in person,” Rubio said.

One rule spelled out in AB 361 could wipe away Long Beach’s established rules on public comment at City Council meetings that have required persons to sign up for public comment before an item is discussed and limits the number of speakers for a given item to a maximum of 20 people. Speaking time is also cut in half from three minutes to 90 seconds after 10 speakers sign up for a given item.

When the pandemic limited meetings to a virtual basis only, public commenters had to sign up by noon the day of the meeting to speak on items later that night leading to allegations that the system was being abused by people who had advanced knowledge of what items would be included on an agenda and when the agenda would be made public. The rules have been highly criticized for limiting the public’s ability to participate in City Council affairs.

A section of the new law prohibits a body from closing the public comment period or cutting off the ability to register for public comment until the public comment period for that item has passed. The change would only be implemented if the City Council returns to an all-virtual format, Rubio said.

Davis’ recommendation could have limited effects on some public meetings that never transitioned back to in-person meetings. However, the city’s Independent Redistricting Commission, which is tasked with redrawing the City Council districts that will dictate elections for the next decade, recently announced it was moving to an all in-person format.

The commission has been hosting hybrid meetings with a small number of residents participating in person while others join through conference calls. The commission is in the middle of in-person meetings to teach residents how to use digital mapping tools so they can present what they think are important parts of their neighborhoods that they’d like to see preserved during the line-drawing process.

Los Angeles County election officials are requiring new maps to be submitted by Dec. 9 to be used in time for the June 2022 primary.

Masks won’t be required when the public returns to City Council meetings, but capacity will be limited to half

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