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

Tuesday night will mark the first time in 476 days that the public will be allowed inside the Bob Foster Civic Chambers for an in-person Long Beach City Council meeting after over a year of remote meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

City Clerk Monique De La Garza said masks won’t be required, but they may be recommended given the recent rise in the Delta variant that has been detected in Long Beach. And there will be a capacity limit of 50%, meaning that about 124 seats will be available for the public. Other than that, the meeting should be pretty normal, she said.

“It’s going to look a lot like a council meeting before the pandemic,” De La Garza said.

This week city health officials confirmed that the more contagious Delta variant, which was originally detected in India, was discovered in Long Beach. Los Angeles County health officials strongly recommended that both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons wear masks when in indoor settings because of how highly contagious the mutation is.

However, Long Beach officials have maintained that it will follow statewide masking guidelines that have yet to weigh in on the Delta variant. De La Garza acknowledged that things are moving quickly and a lot could change by the July 6 council meeting but as of now, state workplace guidelines prohibit the city from enforcing a mask mandate in the council chambers.

“The city manager might put something out recommending that it’s not a bad precautionary measure but it’s not something we can enforce,” De La Garza said.

Staff and members of the public won’t be discouraged from wearing masks, and De La Garza said she’s likely to wear one herself. A city statement issued Wednesday afternoon said that masks would only be required for unvaccinated persons but offered no details on how the city would verify vaccination status.

The presence of masks won’t be the only change to council meetings.

People will once again be able to give public comment in person, meaning that a COVID-era rule adopted by the council that capped the number of speakers for a given item at 20 is going away. The rule had been criticized for blocking residents’ voices from being heard, and for its potential to be abused by people who have advanced knowledge of council agendas and could claim the 20 spots to stack the deck for a given item.

Members of the public will still have to sign up in advance for the item they want to speak on before the item is called and speakers’ time can be shortened to 90 seconds if more than 10 people sign up for any item. But they won’t have to wait on hold in a Zoom-room like they’ve had to over the past year.

The return of in-person commenting also means that phoning in to give public comment is going away, for now. De La Garza said it would be very labor intensive to run public comment for people in attendance and those calling in, so for now the city will pivot away from it.

It could be forced back, though, by a state law that could require large cities to provide telephonic or internet options for people who are unable to attend and participate in public meetings in person.

Assembly Bill 339, which is still working its way through legislative committees, would apply to cities with more than 250,000 residents. The bill would be in effect until the end of 2023 if approved by the legislature.

De La Garza said that the council could choose to keep those options regardless of what happens at the state level, but she’s yet to receive a communication from a majority of members asking for phone-in public comment to be extended.

“All they have to do is tell me that they want it and we can have it,” De La Garza said.

She said in the coming weeks the city will be deploying tablets inside the chambers to allow the public to sign up for public comment without coming to the clerk’s desk at the front of the chambers. De La Garza’s office is also looking at new software that would make it easier to run in-person and remote public comment in the event the assembly bill is adopted.

Editors note: The story has been updated with new information from the city regarding unvaccinated persons being required to wear masks if they attend City Council meetings. 

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.