Temecula City Council’s decision doesn’t do much in real terms, but advocates as much as possible

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The Temecula City Council debated for more than two hours before approving an advocacy letter and plan for reopening the city to be sent to county and state officials recently.

But that action isn’t as impactful as it may seem, as much as some city leaders have indicated it’s their desire to get businesses open as soon as possible, in spite of continuing state health orders.

The bottom line is that the city of Temecula, for better or worse, doesn’t have much power to change coronavirus-related health orders. While the Riverside County Board of Supervisors did use its authority to rescind the county public health officer’s orders, including a mandate that all county residents wear masks in public, neither the city nor the county can go much further than that. Municipalities have the power to mandate greater restrictions, but not lesser ones – a point that was made at the council’s meeting in April.

“What would happen if we just decided to defy the county order and just say ‘open Temecula?’” Mayor James Stewart asked the city attorney at the April 28 meeting.

“Either the California attorney general or the county counsel, would most likely file an injunction against the city to prohibit that order from being implemented,” Peter Thorson, city attorney for Temecula, responded.

So the council did the next closest thing. While the council can’t rescind the governor’s shelter-in-place order, it can advocate for the city, and that’s what the May 12 decision really does – the recovery plan and advocacy letter serve to send a message that Temecula knows what it wants and has a plan.

The city’s 39-page Community Recovery and Reopening Plan is based largely on California’s four-stage Resilience Roadmap put forward by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, and was drafted with input from local business leaders to include content specific to Temecula-area businesses like the Promenade Temecula and the tourism industry.

As noted by the city council, state officials currently hold that California is in “early stage 2” of the four-stage plan.

According to the state’s website, it means “retail (curbside and delivery only), related logistics and manufacturing and essential businesses can open with modifications.”

The advocacy letter, which is addressed to Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chairman V. Manuel Perez, refers to the recovery plan as a “living” document that will change over time as Temecula moves forward with the recovery process.

“We know that you too are envisioning a reopening of our region to alleviate community suffering,” according to Temecula’s letter to the county supervisors. “As such, we remain ready to stand with you in action and advocacy to get our community back on its feet. To start, we are sharing our Community Recovery and Reopening Plan with you. In partnership with our community leaders, and local business and tourism industry, we have spent weeks discussing and developing thoughtful recommendations for your consideration and community use. Those efforts are reflected in the attached plan which is a living and breathing document subject to change in a world where change is rapid and inevitable.”

The advocacy letter also includes messaging expressing support for “nonessential” businesses to be reopened. While it is worth noting that the “nonessential” category includes the mayor’s barbershop chain, that language, along with other wording expressing support for reopening churches, was added at the urging of Councilman Mike Naggar.

“There is great consternation over some businesses being deemed essential and some not,” Naggar said. “The county hasn’t weighed in there. They just adopted the state and the CDC (definitions), but for instance, it came up on several occasions by some of my colleagues that while we’re supposed to stay at home, everybody’s going to Walmart. They’re going to Lowe’s, so you have to ask yourself the question, if you can go to Lowe’s and wait in line or Costco and wait in line … why can’t those same criteria apply to smaller businesses?”

While Councilmember Maryann Edwards said as a regular church attendee, she’s “still a little bit fearful about opening up the churches in general,” the language the council settled on for both churches and businesses doesn’t counteract any state regulations in any way – it just advocates.

“The city council feels strongly that all businesses be deemed essential,” according to the letter. “The city council also feels strongly that all houses of worship be allowed to provide in-person worship services and be deemed essential.

“I’m still a little bit fearful about opening up the churches in general and wouldn’t that be contradictory to state and federal regs if we said we will allow churches together,” Edwards said.

Naggar also urged the council to add language to the advocacy letter for churches to be declared essential.

“The city council feels strongly that all businesses be deemed essential,” according to the letter. “The city council also feels strongly that all houses of worship be allowed to provide in-person worship services and be deemed essential.”

Again at Councilman Mike Naggar’s request, the council also called for Temecula, Murrieta and the Temecula Valley Wine Country to be designated as a sub-region for potential reopening of businesses sooner than surrounding areas. Naggar said his belief that it may be possible for the local area to meet the governor’s criteria that no coronavirus deaths have occurred in the last 14 days for areas to be able to move further into phase 2.

While there have been reported deaths in Murrieta in that time frame, Naggar said he thinks that would not be a difficult bar to reach moving forward – there have been no reported coronavirus deaths at all in Temecula so far.

The unanimous vote comes after a split 3-2 vote at the council’s meeting recently, in which Naggar, Mayor James Stewart and Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards voted to carry on with this year’s July 4 fireworks show over the objections of councilmembers Matt Rahn and Zak Schwank.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.