Long Beach has written 11 citations for people violating the city’s mask mandate

Since the pandemic began, Long Beach has issued a total of 124 citations for violations of the city’s health orders but just 11 were for people not abiding by the city’s mask mandate, according to a City Council memo released Tuesday.

All of the mask citations went to businesses where employees were spotted by city officials not wearing masks, according to the memo authored by Long Beach Development Services Director Oscar Orci.

In Long Beach, mask citations include fines that start at $100 but can escalate to $500 depending on how many citations have been issued to an individual business, according to Rick De La Torre, a spokesperson for the city’s Development Services department, which includes code enforcement.

De La Torre said that the 124 citations have been spread across the city, with no particular area where more were given out. Beyond mask-wearing, the violations can include anything in the city’s health order, ranging from restaurants not properly spacing out tables to stores exceeding capacity limits.

The health order lets Long Beach officials write civil citations or even pursue misdemeanor charges against anyone violating it. As a last resort, officials could even arrest or jail violators under the order’s authority, but Long Beach has eased into enforcement.

The city did not start enforcing its mask mandate until after the City Council requested it in early December. Former Councilwoman Jeannie Pearce said at a Dec. 8 meeting that her constituents wanted enforcement.

“They want to feel safe and feel that the city is taking our mask mandates seriously,” Pearce said in December.

Before that request, the city had been handing out masks and taking an educational approach, City Manager Tom Modica said.

Pearce’s request came as infection rates in the city were spiking in early December. On Dec. 8 the city reported 665 COVID-19 cases, and on Dec. 29, it reported 1,126 cases, the highest single-day case count during the pandemic, according to city data.

Enforcing the health order can be complicated, however. While it allows the city to issue civil fines and citations, only police officers are allowed to write misdemeanor citations or even ask someone for their identification.

People refusing to show their IDs has limited how many citations cities have been able to issue to individuals as opposed to businesses, Orci said in the memo.

Further complicating the process, Pearce and other members of the council requested that Long Beach Police Department officers not be a part of the city’s enforcement mechanism.

Instead, the city created the Venue Task Force, which is made up of employees from code enforcement, environmental health and business licensing employees to administer the lower-level civil citations—sometimes called administrative citations.

To decide how exactly to enforce its mandate, Long Beach surveyed other cities, which had fines ranging from $25 to $2,000. Many, however, did not issue citations and focused on public education and mask distribution.

The city of Glendale issued 182 citations, but larger cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine issued none.

By contrast, Beverly Hills issued upward of 600 citations at $500 apiece. The Beverly Hills code enforcement team was able to get around people refusing to provide identification by using their license plates to issue citations, according to Orci’s memo.

The city’s most high-profile enforcement of its health order involved a restaurant that defied the city and stayed open for dine-in service during the peak of the pandemic. The Fourth Street cafe, Restauration, battled the city in court before announcing it was closing last month. It’s unclear how many of the 124 citations went to Restauration alone. The city has said it repeatedly cited the restaurant and ultimately ended up filing at least 20 misdemeanor charges.

In addition to the 124 total citations citywide, the memo said the task force completed 18,553 education visits and performed 22,673 inspections.

“In general, we have experienced good compliance throughout the pandemic with the requirement to wear face coverings, and we addressed venues that did not adhere through the code enforcement process with the responsible venue owner,” Orci wrote in the memo.

Orci said that the city will continue to enforce the mask mandate indoors in places they’re required but enforcing them other places “will be exceedingly impractical” due to the changing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for vaccinated persons.

Dr. Anissa Davis, the city’s health officer, said that the city will align its new masking guidance for June 15 and beyond with rules put out by the state. Davis said they’ll likely apply to large outdoor and indoor gatherings with thousands of people.

Whether employees at individual businesses will have to wear masks after June 15 could be decided at a special June 3 meeting of the CAL/OSHA board, Davis said.

The CDC announced last month that most Americans didn’t need to wear masks in most outdoor settings and then said that vaccinated persons could forego mask wearing in many indoor and outdoor settings.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this month that California would be doing away with its mask mandate June 15 with people able to go maskless in most circumstances “save for huge, large-scale indoor conventions events like that, where we use our common sense,” Newsom told Fox 11.

Editors note: The story has been updated to include comments from Dr. Anissa Davis on the city’s future guidelines on masking. 

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