ENCINITAS — After a reported outbreak of coronavirus infections at City Hall this past week, the Encinitas City Council has decided to return to virtual meetings for at least the next 30 days.
The council voted 4-0 at Wednesday’s meeting to suspend in-person gatherings, with Mayor Catherine Blakespear absent. The decision came after City Manager Pamela Antil warned that a move to virtual gatherings was necessary in order to protect the public and avert a potential major outbreak of COVID-19 amongst city staff.
“It is with regret that I am making this recommendation, but we have had an outbreak which the Cal/OSHA folks consider an outbreak, while not a major outbreak…and we’re trying to get ahead of it,” Antil said. “Rather than roll the dice and see if we end up with a major outbreak, what I’d like to do is get ahead of it now and ask that we do remote meetings where we don’t have a lot of people gathering in council gatherings, and see if we can nip this one in the bud over the course of a few weeks.”
According to a city spokesperson, both City Hall and the city’s Public Works Department on Calle Magdalena are classified as under “outbreak” as defined by guidelines under California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or CalOSHA.
Since the first case at City Hall was reported on May 3, the downtown location has documented a total of six COVID-19 infections. At the Public Works facility, since the first positive COVID-19 case was reported on May 11, the locale has seen a total of four positive cases. The city’s Community and Senior Center does not currently have any reported cases.
Cal/OSHA describes an “outbreak” as any situation where three or more coronavirus infections are detected in an “exposed group” within a 14-day period. CAL/OSHA defines a “major outbreak” as any case where 20 or more infections occur within a 14-day period.
Antil said that currently, the city does not meet the threshold for a major outbreak. In the event of a major outbreak, she said state guidelines would require the city to evaluate whether to halt some or all operations at City Hall until out of the current outbreak.
The suspension of in-person gatherings at these city facilities will be for at least the next 30 days, after which time the Brown Act requires the council to vote on another resolution if they wish to extend the timeline any further, according to City Attorney Tarquin Preziosi.
If there are no additional coronavirus cases reported for a two-week period, Antil said she will recommend the resumption of in-person meetings.
On Wednesday, the four council members expressed regret over the situation but agreed that moving back to virtual meetings would be the best course of action in order to avert a major outbreak.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this situation, but infection rates are on an exponential path to a crisis again,” said Councilman Tony Kranz, referencing the countywide rise in COVID-19 cases in the past couple of weeks. “As much as I enjoy in-person meetings more than I do Zoom, this building that we’re in is an old strip mall, the circulation isn’t great and you have a roomful of people breathing in here. This virus is airborne and that contributes to infection.”
Councilmember Joy Lyndes agreed.
“The last thing I want is to not be in person…but to go against OSHA is not a responsible way forward, and it creates risks that we as a city should not be in a position to take, so that is not how we want to handle this,” Lyndes said.
Cal/OSHA guidelines state the employer, in this case, the City of Encinitas, “shall evaluate” implementing protocols to reduce COVID-19 transmission, including physical distancing protocols of at least six feet, use of cleanable solid partitions, improving air filtration, requiring respiratory protection and/or moving indoor tasks outdoors, in addition to performing indoor tasks remotely.
However, city officials and council members did not discuss in detail the prospect of adopting other viable safety measures as possible alternatives to virtual-only meetings.
Members of the public who spoke at the meeting expressed displeasure with the council’s decision, calling it politically motivated.
Cindy Cremona, a Leucadia resident and Encinitas mayoral candidate, claimed the council was purposefully switching over to Zoom meetings in order to avoid facing public criticism at upcoming meetings on controversial issues.
“Why are we being denied in-person access to you, our policymakers? That’s easy, you don’t want to hear from us,” Cremona said. “The recommendation tonight isn’t about keeping people safe. It’s about muzzling public participation. Sunlight illuminates the dark corners of council chambers much better than it does a computer screen.
“Today, you are closing your doors on the night you’re scheduled to replace Bruce Ehlers. Next week, the controversial homeless parking lot is on your agenda. And in less than a month, you are scheduled to act on the Goodson project. How convenient and how hypocritical.”
Ehlers, who was controversially removed from his role as chairman of the Planning Commission last month, spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, questioning why the council wasn’t exploring viable alternatives to virtual meetings that would still keep people safe.
“How about a hybrid meeting? If, as stated in the staff report, the problem is a city-employee Covid outbreak, then a hybrid combined in-person and Zoom meeting would safely isolate exposed staff from the public,” Ehlers said. “This would also enhance and not impede public participation.”
Antil maintained that even a hybrid meeting would still put those in attendance at risk of infection given the outbreak.
“A hybrid meeting simply doesn’t solve the problems that would be created by people gathering here in City Hall,” Antil said.
Ehlers said if a hybrid option was not adopted, the council should wait to convene for discussions on controversial items until the resumption of in-person meetings.
Ehlers, an Olivenhain resident and District 4 candidate, also expressed that with three of the sitting council members — Kranz, Lyndes and Blakespear — all running for elected office this year and regularly holding in-person campaign events, the council’s decision could be perceived as hypocritical.
“If the council goes through with this, will the three council members who are actively campaigning apply the same restraint to their campaigns,” Ehlers asked. “How does mixing with the public for campaign events materially differ from the city’s public meetings? For example, Joy Lyndes and Tony Kranz just attended an (Encinitas Chamber of Commerce) mixer.
“Catherine Blakespeare has had numerous in-person meetings and rallies in the past week. In your social media posts no one was wearing a mask. Will these meetings with the public stop and move to Zoom? I ask that the council be consistent and not to apply a different standard for their campaigns than they do with public meetings.”
Longtime Encinitas resident and former council candidate Susan Turney expressed her view the council’s decision was made out of a desire to avoid public scrutiny on upcoming agenda items such as the Goodson project and the city’s overnight homeless parking lot.
“This really was done because the mayor was too uncomfortable with the bad press that she gets from folks who show up at City Hall and complain,” Turney said. “The city’s number one obligation is to keep people safe, but we do not see them extend this same concern when they are out campaigning, unmasked, in large group settings. A lot of people I know believe this is being done because [Blakespear] can’t afford the heat and she personally can’t handle the hot issues like the Goodson project coming up or the homeless parking lot.”
Turney also pointed out that the city is not required to close down operations under the CAL/OSHA guidelines given the current number of cases.
“The regulations about outbreaks do not say to shut City Hall down unless there is some massive outbreak, defined as 20 or more cases in an ‘exposed group’ in a 30-day period,” Turney said. “The exposed group affected should be quarantined until there are no new cases within that group in a 14-day period. They’re not following OSHA rules, they’re barely within the threshold for an outbreak, so I don’t think they’re being sincere. This is clearly politically motivated.”
Kranz told The Coast News the council’s decision was made out of an abundance of caution, and not for any political reasons, and pointed out that public participation over Zoom, while perhaps less desirable, remains a viable option.
“I couldn’t disagree more with the notion that we’re avoiding public scrutiny,” Kranz said. “That’s just not borne out by the facts. Scrutiny via Zoom is certainly viable, it’s not the preferred method, but then again nobody who took the vote Wednesday is happy about this situation. But the notion of City Council meetings becoming superspreader events is not something that the public wants either. I agree with these people that I’d rather be in-person myself, but taking prudent steps towards protecting public health is ultimately our responsibility.
“Some of this criticism is just general frustration over the last two years and some of it is typical politics. We’re in this position knowing that there will be criticism but they have the right to criticize us…at the end of the day this is still the prudent thing to do, and the public expects us to do those prudent things.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article stated Encinitas City Hall would shut down indefinitely under a “major outbreak.” This was not accurate. Should a major outbreak occur, according to City Manager Pam Antil, the city would “evaluate whether to halt some or all operations” until the outbreak had subsided. We regret the error.