Temecula council mulls how to advocate for ending health restrictions, reopens dog parks, some parking lots

The Temecula City Council discusses stay-at-home orders and reopening parking lots at public parks in a meeting conducted via Zoom on April 28.

In a virtual meeting that continued all Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning, the Temecula City Council debated its options on what to do about county and state public health orders, ultimately deciding to open up dog parks and parking lots at smaller city parks, and draft a plan for reopening Temecula to lobby county and state decision-makers with.

Temecula City Attorney Peter Thorson made clear that the city council has no authority to loosen stay-home orders issued by the Riverside County public health officer —  the city council signed away its authority on health services to the county in a vote on the night of Temecula’s incorporation in 1989 — or those handed down by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

But the city does “have every right in the world,”  he said, to advocate for itself on how it would like to see businesses start to reopen.

That was perhaps less authority than some of the council, appearing variously from their homes, city hall offices and council chambers via Zoom, would have wished for.

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

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

The matter would likely be in front of a judge in a matter of days were the city to go that route, Thorson told Stewart.

Councilmember Mike Naggar indicated he agreed with Stewart’s sentiment, but also agreed that such a decision would probably be unproductive.

He did, though, push for utilizing some leeway the city had found regarding opening some public parking lots at city parks; parks and recreational fields have always been open for use, but their parking lots were closed with the issuance of the county’s first public health order last month.

City Manager Aaron Adams explained the city had found the county’s latest amended public health order from April 20 unclear on whether that was allowed, and sought a legal opinion on the meaning of the order.

“Eventually we did get an opinion that confirmed our suspicion that yes, you can now start opening up your parking lots to parks,” Adams told the council.

After a marathon session of 54 public comments read by City Clerk Randi Johl, split roughly even for and against pushing for lifting health restrictions or keeping them, Councilman Matt Rahn pushed against opening parking lots.

“I have to be real candid here, I’m somewhat disappointed that we are having the conversations about parking lots that we are,” Rahn said. “We create ordinances and regulations, whether it’s parking lots because of our schools, issues that we had last year, or whether it’s short term vacation rentals or whatever it is, we’re creating those laws, those policies, those regulations, those ordinances because of the least common denominator of folks who do the wrong thing, not because of folks who are doing the right thing.”

Opening parking lots, Rahn worried, would turn parks into “destinations,” attracting people to congregate in ways that will facilitate the spread of coronavirus in Temecula and diminish the success the city has seen so far in keeping its cases to a minimum. As of April 29, there were 91 confirmed coronavirus cases in Temecula — a small percentage of the more than 3,700 cases countywide — and zero deaths out of 141 across the county.

Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards, too, emphasized caution.

“Everybody wants to go to the splash pad or they want to go to the sports park or things like that so by opening the parking lots we’re encouraging people to drive across town because they have a place to park,” Edwards said. “It would be great if we could open up everything but we just can’t at this point so I want to err on the side of caution, if you want to walk to the park, maintain your distance then go ahead and do so.”

Naggar, though, put an emphasis on personal choice and personal responsibility.

“The preponderance of people will practice social distancing and if we saw anything, we’ve seen that in Temecula,” he said. “We’ve seen it at Walmart, we’ve seen it at the markets, we’ve seen it at Home Depot. And if I pull up to a park, and I’m parked there, and I see a bunch of knuckleheads or I see that it’s not safe, I will not go there, but that decision is mine. Not the city council’s. Not the health official for the County of Riverside.”

Councilmembers were able to compromise and agree to keep parking lots at larger parks like Ronald Reagan Sports Park and Patricia Birdsall Sports Park shuttered while opening lots at those smaller ones that do have parking — most community parks don’t have lots anyway. Included in the motion was an edict to reopen dog parks, which is also allowed per the county’s latest health order.

In discussing the possibility of drafting a letter to advocate for reopening local businesses to present to the county, some councilmembers expressed frustration with the current situation but acknowledged the lack of control the city has regarding stay-home orders.

Stewart, the owner of a small chain of barbershops, said orders for non-essential businesses to be closed have hurt his business’s finances.

“It literally am losing $12,000 a month that we’ve been closed down,” he said. “We’re looking at data from countries that are shut down and countries that didn’t shut down, and the data is almost parallel with each other, and why are we still shut down?”

It’s unclear if that’s true, though. For instance, Sweden, a country that did not impose any stay-at-home restrictions, has seen 19,621 coronavirus cases and 2,355 deaths, out of its population of 10.3 million, according to numbers released by Johns Hopkins University — a death rate of about 23 per 100,000. The United States, with its patchwork of state and local stay-home orders that were issued at varying points in the spread of coronavirus in each region, does have only a slightly lower death rate of about 17 per 100,000. But Temecula, for instance, a place that fell under stay-home orders before coronavirus had a chance to gain a significant foothold in the community, has seen no deaths.

Naggar again emphasized personal choice and responsibility, advocating for businesses to come up with ways they can remain open safely and letting people make the decision for themselves whether they want to go out or not.

“I can assure you that, at least I’ll speak for my own family, but I think I can speak for everybody here, if i start seeing people get sick and or dying, I will stay in the house, and so will everybody else,” Naggar said, “And i won’t go to the restaurant and i wont do all of these things that we’re talking about.”

Edwards weighed the gravity of the situation.

“This is serious, but economic failure is nothing to take lightly, either,” she said.

Naggar said in his view, there are few other options than to advocate for opening businesses to the largest extent possible.

“I don’t even know how we define a mistake,” he said. “Life is full of mistakes. I don’t know how you handle this mistake-free. The only way to handle it mistake-free is to make no decision and be as restrictive as possible.”

The council voted unanimously to direct the city manager to reach out to local businesses at his discretion to get information on what conditions they would need to reopen, then formulate that into a letter to be reviewed by the council for approval at a special meeting scheduled for May 5.

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