Long Beach tries to strike a balance in fighting COVID-19

Bikers not wearing masks pass by Long Beach's health ambassadors Chris Bonomo, center, near Shoreline Village in Long Beach
Bikers not wearing masks pass by Long Beach’s health ambassadors Chris Bonomo, center, near Shoreline Village in Long Beach. The Long Beach City Council is considering ramping up enforcement for people who are not wearing masks
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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As vaccines take center stage in the fight against the coronavirus, Long Beach officials convened a news conference on Thursday to announce their inoculation plan.

In the next few weeks, the city will receive 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with 11,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine arriving in early January, Mayor Robert Garcia said.

Shots will go first into the arms of medical professionals, essential workers and high-risk senior citizens. Other Long Beach residents will probably be able to get the vaccine by late spring or early summer.

As one of two cities in Los Angeles County with its own public health department, Long Beach has an unusual degree of autonomy in setting coronavirus policies.

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For the most part, the coastal city of 460,000 has followed the lead of county health officials as the pandemic has worsened. That has drawn ire from some residents and business owners.

Officials in some cities, including Beverly Hills and Lancaster, are exploring the idea of creating their own health departments after realizing they were powerless to dial back county restrictions such as those on outdoor dining.

A Health care worker walks between long lines of vehicles at Long Beach City College
A Health care worker walks between long lines of vehicles, where she was handing out self-administer COVID-19 tests at Long Beach City College-Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Pasadena, the other city with a health department, kept its outdoor restaurant patios open until a stay-at-home order from the state hit Southern California on Sunday.

But Long Beach shut down outdoor dining soon after L.A. County announced its latest order at the end of November, prompting a protest in the Belmont Shore dining district.

Photos look back at 2020’s wild ride in the Golden State.

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For Garcia, caution has been underlined by hard experience — his mother and stepfather died of COVID-19 this summer. As of Thursday, the city had logged nearly 20,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 300 deaths.

“The COVID crisis remains serious, and it remains the single biggest threat to life that we have faced in our city, and the biggest single threat that remains as we move forward,” Garcia said at Thursday’s news conference. “What brings us hope is we know that in 2021, we are going to defeat COVID-19.”

Jo Pausic pauses to look out over Long Beach Harbor while reading under a tree at ShoreLine Aquatic Park in Long Beach.
Jo Pausic, of Long Beach, pauses to look out over Long Beach Harbor while reading under a tree at ShoreLine Aquatic Park in Long Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Only cities with their own health departments can legislate independently from county coronavirus regulations.

But all cities are generally free to impose stricter rules than the county or state. When it comes to mask wearing, some have done so.

In Manhattan Beach, anyone who fails to wear a face covering can be fined $100, with penalties ratcheting as high as $350 for repeat violations.

Hermosa Beach has issued 700 citations to people who violated a city order to wear masks at the beach and nearby areas, according to a city spokesperson.

Long Beach, like many cities, has generally relied on people to mask up voluntarily. Police officers and other officials sometimes gently suggest that maskless people put on face coverings, and compliance is usually good, said City Manager Tom Modica.

A woman wearing a mask walks through a mostly empty shopping mall at The Pike Outlets in Long Beach.
A woman wearing a mask walks through a mostly empty shopping mall at The Pike Outlets in Long Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The city employs about a dozen young people as “health ambassadors” to hand out masks and reminding people about social distancing.

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But with COVID-19 deaths at unprecedented levels and intensive care units nearly full, the Long Beach City Council is now weighing whether to punish residents who venture out in public without masks.

“This is the law. It is a state mandate to wear a mask. It’s not optional,” said Christopher Robson, a member of the Long Beach Board of Health and Human Services who called into a City Council meeting Tuesday. “You have to wear a mask. It’s the only thing we’ve got until we have vaccination.”

Some Long Beach police officers have had compliance issues of their own.

Aaron Ball visits George's Greek Cafe with his dog, Arthur Edwin, in his backpack while scootering on Pine Avenue
A masked Aaron Ball, of Long Beach, visits George’s Greek Cafe with his dog, Arthur Edwin, in his backpack while scootering on Pine Ave. in Long Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

A photo from a Nov. 5 training session, published in the Long Beach Post, showed officers clustered together, many without masks, to hear Chief Robert Luna speak.

“As I sit here today and I reflect back on it, I should have absolutely made sure everybody had a face covering before I walked in there,” Luna said. “Obviously, when I think about the potentialities of somebody getting sick because I was addressing this group, that would be very difficult to live with. So I really regret that happening.”

Since then, 47 Long Beach officers have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 73 officers since the start of the pandemic.

In-house contact tracers determined that none of the recent cases were linked to the Nov. 5 event, Luna said.