After weeks of pressure from some residents — and a bit of backlash from others — the Burbank City Council directed municipal staff members to create a fine enforcing face covering guidelines.
The staff still needs to draft an order that the city manager will give, but it will be shaped according to directions the council gave on Tuesday. Notably, the order will not be administered by the Burbank Police Department, something the agency strongly opposed when the matter was raised at previous meetings.
Rather, the council decided, the order should use a contractor to handle enforcement, a method utilized by Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.
Contract costs were not discussed during the meeting, though staff members said in a report that surveyed cities reported that they paid $65 per hour per contracted staff member. The report also said Burbank may be eligible for federal reimbursement for up to 75% of the costs, depending on funding availability.
Face covering protocols, which are set by Los Angeles County and California health orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, would also primarily be enforced by a fine in Burbank areas were people tend to congregate. Council members floated downtown Burbank, Magnolia Park and the Chandler Boulevard bike path as potential locations.
“It’s my hope that we never issue a single citation,” said Councilman Timothy Murphy. “But come on — we’re here again, we were here before. Let’s give the people all the tools they need, and let’s see how our citizens respond. They’ve always responded well.”
City Manager Justin Hess said the enforcement group would first try to get someone it approached to put on a face covering voluntarily, rather than immediately issuing a citation. As with previous emergency orders, like the one given to close San Fernando Boulevard to vehicle traffic, the council will confirm it after its issuance by Hess.
Several residents have called on the council in recent weeks to enforce face covering guidelines with a fine, resulting in the formation of an online petition that gained nearly 600 signatures. Over the past several council meetings, the fine was placed on the agenda, then removed — and then, after frustrated residents responded, was returned.
Some of the residents have reported they see many people not wearing masks or other face coverings when in public spaces, and hope the threat of a fine would convince them to change their practice.
“I really think this is a nice way … to make sure everybody’s healthy, to make it more the norm,” said Nicole Malotte by phone during the public comment portion of the meeting Tuesday.
But not everyone is in favor of an order. A petition against it gathered several dozen signatures and two people called during public comment in opposition.
“We are becoming a nanny state,” said David Morgan, who said many residents are already wearing masks and described proponents of the potential order as “hysteria-driven people.”
“You’re going to create a civil war inside of Burbank,” he added, speaking during public comment.
Another resident, Dora Quinones, argued that there is no evidence that masks are effective at stopping the coronavirus.
Health organizations and experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, Harvard and Stanford University researchers, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and others, have broadly urged the public to wear face coverings and keep a social distance from others, pointing to research showing the practices can prevent transmission of the virus.
COUNCIL DEBATES CITATIONS
Though the panel voted 5-0 on Tuesday to pursue an administrative citation, there was some dissent both from the public and the council members themselves.
Mayor Sharon Springer pointed out that Burbank’s COVID-19 rate per capita is much lower than that of other cities — 1,141 cases as of the end of Wednesday, or 1,344 cases per every 100,000 people, compared to Glendale’s 1,678 and Los Angeles’ 2,585 per 100,000 people. She argued that local residents are already following face covering requirements and that most people tend to comply with the health order after being approached by a city representative.
“We are in fact enforcing the safety protocol,” she said. “We just don’t have monetary fines.”
Vice Mayor Bob Frutos agreed, adding that complaints to police regarding people not wearing masks were relatively low. The BPD reported in a staff report to the council that, from June to August, the department received 26 calls for service related to the pandemic, with only six related to people not adhering to the face covering requirements.
Police Chief Scott LaChasse also told council members that there appears to be a misunderstanding among members of the public about when they are required to wear face coverings. Generally, a person is required to wear a face covering, which county officials have said is not a substitute for social distancing, when there is or could be an interaction with someone who is not a member of the same household.
The ambiguity could present a difficult element for those enforcing the health order, Frutos said; an observer wouldn’t necessarily know that a group of unmasked people belong to the same household.
“Do I really want my city to be a police state?” he asked.
Gabel-Luddy disagreed, saying that the city needs to make sure people are complying with guidelines to address the health and economic crises posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s a police state,” she said. “We’re in a public health crisis. This has as much to do with getting our businesses back and going as keeping ourselves and our family and our friends safe within reasonable bounds.”
“This is an inconvenience, but it’s not oppression,” she added.
Talamantes struck a similar note, seeming to respond to those who claimed that face covering requirements violated their civil liberties.
“You’re taking care of yourself as well as others,” he said. “I don’t see it as taking away from my rights.”
Gabel-Luddy also said the city staff should consider an appeals process to the proposed fine — which under city code would cost $100 for a first citation, $200 for a second citation and $500 for following citations within a year — for people who cannot afford them.
City Attorney Amy Albano confirmed that the city manager would draft an order containing objective standards stating when a face covering is required.
After the council voted to have staff members pursue the new method of enforcement, Brooke Purdy, a Burbank resident who has contacted the council multiple times on the issue, said she was surprised but elated by the panel’s decision.
“It’s not going to be mass ticketing and civil war,” she said by phone. “It’s literally just having a mandate in place and letting the public know that Burbank is serious about protecting its citizens.”