By Alfredo Santana
LO ANGELES — Most cities in Southeast Los Angeles have banned open door City Council meetings in January and pressed forward with Zoom and teleconferences, in response to the surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant.
A handful of municipalities that had reopened for in-person meetings resorted to cap the number of people who could attend, and many suspended public gatherings to avert more transmissions.
Lynwood will continue with a hybrid of in-person council meetings and Zoom for those uncomfortable to attend on the first and third Tuesdays of every month, said Councilwoman Marisela Santana.
Santana and her colleagues will discuss the issue at the Jan. 18 meeting, and she said she will push for the virtual tool to be permanently phased in for council members and the public in light of the emergency.
“It is important for me to make sure council members continue participating in meetings in case they turn sick or are exposed. The same goes for the community,” Santana said.
Facing the prospect of an extended pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 361, a measure that modifies the Brown Act and allows legislative bodies to use teleconferencing to conduct meetings, with the caveat that they be accessible to the public by phone or internet, and let audiences address the councils.
AB 361 was signed Sept.16, 2021, and is scheduled to sunset Jan. 1, 2024.
Accessible online council meetings give local governments room to deploy measures aimed at better managing the increase in new COVID cases in L.A. County that reached more than 37,000 on Jan. 6, and nearly 44,000 a day later.
Last week, the county Department of Public Health reported more than 200,000 new infections. On Jan. 9, the county set a record with 45,584 new cases.
Before the Delta variant became dominant last summer, Pico Rivera canceled in-person gatherings in City Council chambers and pivoted to teleconferences, The city expects to follow that format through June.
In South Gate, Mayor Al Rios said that the city welcomed the public back for live council meetings in the fall, but the surge in positive cases this winter forced them to go back to remote meetings.
Rios said that the current wave of COVID infections hit South Gate hard with a fifth of the city’s workforce — about 80 employees — in quarantine.
Data from South Gate’s website indicates that the city employs 282 full time and 133 part-time workers.
“Two months ago, we started to meet physically, but we kept the Zoom option. We decided to go back to Zoom until the current wave of infections decreases,” Rios said. “We had to adjust tech, we had the phones let go [and refurbish them] because [the system] wasn’t compatible. Zoom has impacted all the consumers.”
In response to the rapidly evolving threat, Downey announced that only 10 people will be allowed to attend in-person sessions starting Jan. 11 on a first-come basis, Councilman Sean Ashton said.
Staff will check people’s temperature as they enter City Hall and attendants will be required to wear masks. The meetings will be accessible via Zoom and on the city’s YouTube channel, he said.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the city of Downey has issued an emergency order to temporarily limit occupancy in the council chambers during public meetings,” Ashton said Jan. 6.
Downey holds council meetings on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.
Whittier announced on its website that soaring COVID-19 transmissions pushed it to ban public access to all its facilities, including senior assistance centers and recreational areas, until it is safer to reopen.
Similar to Downey, Whittier holds public council gatherings twice a month, on the second and fourth Tuesdays at 6 p.m.
The city of Norwalk will carry a format of virtual City Council meetings approved last year, with no plans to change it soon, said a city staff member.
However, City Hall and other facilities will remain open to the public. Appointments are encouraged, and wearing facemasks indoors is enforced, in line with county health department mandates, she said.
Bell Gardens posted on its website that due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, council chamber gatherings are closed to the public and all meetings will be conducted via Zoom.
The city posted Zoom links on its website for the Jan. 24 meeting so residents can register to attend.
The city of Commerce held its first meeting this year on Jan. 3, using the Zoom platform, a closed circuit television channel and via teleconference.
In Maywood, Councilman Ricardo Lara said the city continues its practice to conduct online meetings every second and fourth Wednesday of each month, and plans to do so for the foreseeable future.
“Last month, we had a 5-0 approval for online [meetings]. I do not have an expectation when the in-person meetings will come back, especially with the current wave of infections,” Lara said.
Montebello reinstated tougher safety protocols at City Hall, prohibited public access to all its facilities and recreational programs through Jan. 31, and said it will reevaluate its operations at the end of the month.
“It’s important that we take these immediate and important measures in order to remain operationally effective,” Mayor Kimberly Cobos-Cawthorne said.
Similar to South Gate, Montebello reported 20% of its workforce had tested positive to the coronavirus and were quarantined.
City Council meetings will be conducted via Zoom, and comments will be accepted if they are submitted by phone.
The city of Bell dropped a special planning commission meeting scheduled on Jan. 10, and will offer teleconferencing of its council meetings until further notice, said a city hall employee. Regular council meetings scheduled for Jan. 12 and 26 had not incurred changes.
“Unfortunately, council meetings are still closed,” the employee said.
Cudahy also offers online transmissions of its council meetings, and viewers can dial by phone to comment on agenda items, or to discuss city issues during the public participation period.
The city schedules council meetings the first and the third Tuesdays of every month, and had its first 2022 meeting on Jan. 4 using Zoom and phone lines.
Paramount encouraged attendees to council meetings to watch them streamed, or view archived sessions on YouTube and Spectrum cable TV channel 36. The city conducts its council meetings the first and third Tuesdays of each month.
Huntington Park’s official internet page indicates that live council meetings can be viewed online twice a month, on the first and third Tuesdays at 6 p.m.
“As of right now, we are doing (meetings) via Zoom,” said Lucy Urzua, a city clerk assistant.
She said the city has not booked a timetable when the council would resume meetings with people from the community on chambers.