Kevin Cody

Mask wearing mandatory in Hermosa Beach, council rules

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La Playita server Mayro Angulo shows how the new face of South Bay dining wears a mask. Photo by JP Cordero

by Ryan McDonald

People in highly trafficked areas of Hermosa Beach must wear masks or face a $100 fine, the City Council decided Tuesday.

The rule, an emergency ordinance goes into effect immediately, requires the wearing of face coverings over both the nose and mouth for people on The Strand, the beach, the Green Belt, city parks, downtown Hermosa, and upper Pier Avenue. 

The decision, by a 4-1 vote, was a compromise resulting from contentious debate, mirroring the challenges local governments across the country have faced in attempting to boost the use of face coverings in public. The discussion in Hermosa was mostly free of the junk science and conspiracy mongering that has hamstrung efforts in other jurisdictions; even opponents of the ordinance acknowledging the importance of social distancing and the benefits of wearing masks. Instead, it turned on concerns that a broader mask mandate would cover behavior with little impact on public health.

The ordinance that city staff had originally drafted for the council’s consideration would have required members of the public to wear face coverings “whenever they leave their place of residence.” A majority of the council blanched at going that far, raising the example of pre-dawn jogs or midnight dog walks in which people are unlikely to encounter anyone outside their household. 

“If we passed the rule as written, I would’ve been violating the rule for 20 minutes today when I went for a walk with my daughter and my dog this morning,” said Councilmember Mike Detoy.

These objections, however, appear to be based on a sense that wearing masks is an undesirable inconvenience that can be avoided when possible, the very thing that is slowing their wider use. Mayor pro tem Justin Massey and Councilmember Stacey Armato, who had supported the original requirement, emphasized that “normalizing” face coverings was key to getting broader participation.

“We need to get used to wearing masks. This is the new normal. The sooner we can just get comfortable doing it, the better it’s going to be for everyone,” Armato said.

Resistance to face coverings remains seductive to large swaths of the country. On Monday, a group calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors” posted a video on social media in which they dismissed wearing masks as a “con.” The video was retweeted by Donald Trump, Jr., and in the few hours that it was available on Facebook was viewed more than 14 million times. (The video was taken down for violating company policy about sharing misinformation about the coronavirus.)

Even Hermosa’s geographically-limited mask requirement is likely to be controversial among a segment of the public that resists wearing face coverings in open outdoor areas, where the risk of transmission is thought to be lower and which are commonly used as places to exercise. Massey said he anticipated a flood of “questions from people who like to run on The Strand or the Greenbelt.” 

“Asking people to wear a mask on the beach is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard and I’ll never comply with it,” said one resident who identified himself only as Chad.

The council’s decision also jettisoned a provision that would have required people to wear face coverings at restaurants except when eating or drinking. Mayor Mary Campbell, who voted for the geography-based rules but against the original ordinance, said her hesitancy about a broader mask rule was motivated by her sense that the pandemic was improving without one.

“I would like to be able to extend an appropriate amount of faith and trust that people are catching on,” Campbell said.

On the day of the meeting, there were 2,056 people hospitalized with confirmed infections of COVID-19, about a hundred more than the average reported during the pandemic’s previous peak in late April. 

After some initial disagreement about their importance, scientists now say there is no denying that wearing face coverings decreases the risk of spreading COVID-19. As a result, masks have been a part of various state and local health orders for more than a month.

The details of the rules, however, have been hard to nail down. In other parts of California, including neighboring Orange County, attempts to impose mask requirements led to protests and even death threats against public health officials. On June 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide mask requirement for people in California in “high-risk” settings. The order provided a number of examples, including inside of businesses, common areas like hallways and stairwells, riding public transit, and outdoor areas where it was impossible to maintain social distance.

Los Angeles County’s current Health Order was last updated July 18, and contains modifications intended to reflect the governor’s mask mandate. Councilmember Hany Fangary, the lone no vote on Tuesday’s ordinance, said he would have preferred to stick with the county’s order. 

But the county’s rule is densely written, and leaves enough ambiguity for people to find themselves maskless in situations where it may be difficult to socially distance. It requires “all persons wear a cloth face covering over both their 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 problem with the county rule is that the exception swallows the rule,” Massey said. 

Maintaining the county’s rule also limited the city’s ability to enforce it. The county’s rule named failure to wear a mask a misdemeanor, meaning it carried the possibility of jail time and could only be enforced by police officers, said City Attorney Michael Jenkins. By adopting an ordinance of its own, the city is able to issue civil fines to violators.

Enforcement of the ordinance will be handled by temporary workers the city will hire to handle code enforcement duties, said City Manager Suja Lowenthal. The mask monitors are likely to be deployed at times and places where the risk of crowding is greatest, such as The Strand on weekends. The council also made a separate motion to remove the possibility of jail time.

Earlier this month, neighboring Manhattan Beach began enforcing a face covering requirement. Visits to that city’s downtown by Easy Reader showed significant increases in mask wearing following the rule’s implementation, a sentiment echoed Tuesday by several Hermosa council members.

Some commentators suggested that Manhattan was receiving pushback and considering modifying its ordinance. In an email sent out Wednesday morning, the City of Manhattan Beach indicated it was “enchanc[ing] proactive enforcement on face coverings.”

“While it may seem uncomfortable to some to wear face coverings in public, it makes the application of this requirement very simple: Wear a face covering when you are outside your residence,” the email read. ER

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