COVID-19 outbreak prompts Encinitas to return to virtual meetings

The downtown Encinitas sign.
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Situation could become a ‘major outbreak’ if new measures aren’t taken, city manager says


Due to an outbreak of coronavirus among employees at both City Hall and a public works facility, the Encinitas City Council will return to virtual meetings for the foreseeable future, council members decided during a special meeting Wednesday, May 18.

The vote was 4-0 with Mayor Catherine Blakespear absent, and it came after City Manager Pamela Antil informed the council that if it didn’t act now the city could go from having an “outbreak” to a “major outbreak,” as defined by state health regulations. If this happens, Antil added, city facilities will be forced to close under state health guidelines.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known as Cal/OSHA, defines an “outbreak” as three or more coronavirus cases in an “exposed group” of employees within a 14-day period. Encinitas now has that status for both City Hall and its public works facility on Calle Magdalena, but the city’s senior center facility does not have any reported cases, Antil said.

A “major outbreak” is defined by the state as 20 or more employee COVID-19 cases in an “exposed group” within a 30-day period.

The council’s decision to go to virtual public meetings held over Zoom became effective Wednesday, May 18, leading the council to reschedule the items that were to have been heard during its regular 6 p.m. Wednesday meeting. Those items, including the selection of a new city planning commissioner, have been moved to next week’s meeting, which will be held remotely over Zoom.

While the emergency order bars in-person public meetings for the next 30 days, city buildings will remain open for people who wish to obtain permits or other city services.

Council members said Wednesday afternoon, May 18, that they didn’t want to go virtual, but said they felt they needed to do so.

“The last thing I want is to not be in person,” Councilmember Joy Lyndes said, adding that even though she didn’t want to go virtual she felt the council should make the “responsible” decision and follow state guidelines.

Councilmember Tony Kranz said regional coronavirus case numbers have been rising exponentially of late and the decision to go remote was good one given that City Hall is a renovated, old strip mall building that doesn’t have great air circulation.

“As it stands now, it seems to me that the right thing to do is to go virtual,” he said.

Councilmember Kellie Shay Hinze, who is seven months pregnant, said it wasn’t her preference to go virtual, but said she has found it a bit scary lately to be in city meetings given the region’s rising coronavirus case numbers.

Councilmember Joe Mosca said it wasn’t any fun going back to some of the previous coronavirus restrictions, but said it was the prudent decision given that two city facilities had outbreaks at the moment.

Before the vote, council members heard from two people who strongly opposed the move.

Bruce Ehlers, who is running for the New Encinitas/Olivenhain District 4 City Council seat, and Cindy Cremona, who is running for mayor, said existing council members were trying to silence their opponents by going to virtual meetings.

Ehlers called the council’s move an “extreme step” and said the city should hold hybrid meetings where the city employees participate virtually and the general public attends in person. He noted that Lyndes and Kranz recently attended a chamber mixer and said that if they’re attending other public gatherings they shouldn’t be going virtual for City Council meetings.

His comments led Kranz to remark that the chamber event was an outdoor gathering, not an indoor one.

Cremona said that going virtual isn’t the same as being in person, particularly when controversial topics are on the council’s agenda. She mentioned how many angry people showed up for a recent meeting where council voted to remove Ehlers from his Planning Commission leadership spot.

“You wouldn’t have felt nearly as much heat,” if that meeting had been held virtually, she said.