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Council passes emergency mask ordinance: updated

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

During a marathon special meeting that went past 11 p.m. on Tuesday evening, the Claremont City Council unanimously adopted an emergency ordinance giving local authorities the ability to fine people observed in public without face coverings.

First time offenders would face a $100 fine, rising to $200 for a second offense in a single year and $500 for a third. An individual could get a second or third ticket in a single day if that person continues to refuse to wear a face covering.

Citations would not involve the court system, but would be handled completely at city hall and those cited could request a hearing.

“In addition, the proposed urgency ordinance creates four ‘mask zones’ where non-exempt individuals must wear masks unless they can demonstrate (by a preponderance of the evidence) that it is feasible to maintain a distance of at least six feet from persons who are not members of the same household or residence at all times,” Assistant City Manager Chris Paulson wrote in his staff report.

The four “mask zones”—Thompson Creek Trail, the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park, the Village and the Village expansion—were identified as areas that consistently have large concentrations of people.

In these zones, individuals not wearing a mask would have to prove that they were able to maintain six feet of physical distancing to avoid a penalty, which is a key distinction.

In the rest of the city, one could still face a fine but the onus falls on the person writing the ticket to prove that social distancing was not being followed.

The city will concentrate its enforcement in the four zones. The boundaries for the two Village areas include the railroad tracks on the south, College Avenue on the east and Cornell Avenue on the west. The northern boundary for the Village will be Harrison Avenue, and for the Village expansion will be Bonita Avenue.

Claremont’s Public Information Officer Bevin Handel told the COURIER on Monday that the ordinance would be enforced by city employees with the authority to write a citation, and that the bulk of that responsibility would fall on the shoulders of the park rangers. Reserve police officers and the community services officer also have the authority to write citations.

During the meeting both the council and staff agreed that the goal in passing the ordinance was not to issue citations to the public but to slow the spread of the virus through compliance with the existing mask order. City employees whose jobs include handing out such tickets would do so only if asking someone to wear a mask does not work.

“It’s certainly my hope that we don’t collect a cent and everybody wears a mask; that is the goal,” Mayor Larry Schroeder said.

Los Angeles County’s face covering order went into effect on June 19 and requires: “All persons wear a cloth face covering over both the nose and mouth whenever they leave their place of residence and are, or can be, in contact with or walking near or past others who are non-household members in both public and private places, whether indoors or outdoors.”

The city’s ordinance would end when the county and state health orders mandating the wearing of masks are rescinded, or at the city’s discretion.

Exemptions to the ordinance include: children under the age of two; people with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask; people working in areas where wearing a mask creates a safety hazard; people obtaining a service involving the nose or face; the hearing impaired; people seated at restaurants; people who are incarcerated; and those working outside or exercising, as long as they can safely maintain six feet of distance from others.

The exception to the ordinance for solo outdoor activity would include the popular “loop trail” in the Wilderness Park when there are few enough other people around that social distancing is easy. Even then, one must have a mask ready and put it on when returning to more populated areas.

City staff decided to bring the emergency ordinance to the council in response to citizen complaints about groups of people not wearing masks, as well as similar observations from its own employees who noted that about 50 percent of people in congested areas were not in compliance. The ordinance does not create a new mask requirement, it merely gives some teeth to existing health orders from the county and the state.

“In addition to creating an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission, lack of compliance with the state and county mask orders has led to escalating tensions between citizens and city personnel who are trying to encourage compliance with these orders,” Mr. Paulson wrote in his report.

Claremont is not the first city to adopt a similar rule—during his presentation Tuesday night, Mr. Paulson projected a slide showing 13 other cities and four counties that have taken similar measures, including several here in Southern California.

Claremont’s fines are consistent with those of other municipalities, including Duarte and Beverly Hills. However, some have levied hefty penalties, including Glendale where fines are $400 for the first offense, then $1,000 and $2,000 thereafter.

The ordinance goes into effect immediately, however, there will be a grace period through Labor Day during which City Manager Tara Schultz has instructed staff to provide information about the rule instead of issuing citations.

 The city created a park ambassador program comprised of employees from the human services department who will assist rangers with the public outreach aspect of the new law.

Park ambassadors will patrol the Thompson Creek Trail and the Wilderness Park and contact park visitors who are not wearing masks to provide them with an informational courtesy card and a free disposable mask.

The city will also deploy police aides and reserve officers to the Village areas to help with enforcement which, similar to the park ambassadors, will largely be for outreach.

Police will only be called if rangers, ambassadors, police aides or reserve officers encounter a combative individual while attempting to enforce the mask ordinance.

During Tuesday’s meeting the council discussed at length the impact the rule would have on those who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons. Such individuals are exempt from the county health order and Ms. Schultz said that staff instruction in such situations is to be polite and simply move on.

During public comment several people expressed similar concerns or told stories of being harassed in city parks because their face was uncovered, even after they tried to explain why they can’t wear a mask.

“I wish the city council could legislate kindness but we can’t control every citizen. What we can do though is make sure that the people that are going to enforce the ordinance are properly instructed and trained so that they do present in a professional manner and don’t harass people,” Mr. Schroeder said.

Councilmember Corey Calaycay expressed concern that the fine schedule was too high and proposed reducing it to $50 for first time offenders. Other members of the council felt the fine schedule was appropriate as it stands, since the intention was to issue citations only as a last resort.

Mr. Calaycay also asked if the city could collect data on how many citations were issued versus courtesy cards handed out so that the council could reaffirm the ordinance during its September 22 meeting.

Ms. Schultz responded that staff would not have adequate time to prepare a detailed report including significant data on citations in time for that meeting because it was scheduled for just a handful of weeks after the end of the grace period.

After suggesting that a full report could be ready in time for a meeting in October, the council decided instead to forgo reaffirming the ordinance but will hear an update from staff on September 22.

“This is not about protecting you, this is about you protecting other people. You wear a mask so those droplets don’t go out. You may feel fine and be asymptomatic and still be spreading it all over,” Mr. Schroeder said. “This is your social responsibility, to be a member of society to respect and look after the health of everyone.”

“Like in the old American Express commercials, ‘Don’t leave home without it,’” Ms. Handel said.

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