To increase community awareness and encourage more people to wear face masks in public, the Pleasanton City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to enhance public messaging instead of issue citations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I prefer more of the education process the city of Pleasanton has been doing, and I think the data shows it works," said Mayor Karla Brown before voting. "If punitive (measures) worked, nobody would ever speed ... a threat doesn't always work."
Debating late into the night, Vice Mayor Julie Testa -- who advocated unsuccessfully a couple of times with then-mayor Jerry Thorne to officially agendize mask enforcement last year -- cast the sole No vote on the council's second motion Tuesday, which included additional signage and reminding residents about the importance of wearing face coverings in public areas.
Face masks must already be worn by all employees and visitors inside city offices and facilities, but City Manager Nelson Fialho said the original proposal -- which failed 2-3, with Testa and Councilmember Valerie Arkin voting Yes -- would have allowed police officers to "issue administrative citations to individuals or businesses in locations we see as areas of concern."
According to Fialho, those areas include city-owned property such as parks and outdoor recreation areas, "and then downtown Pleasanton specifically."
"I think the rationale there was, for staff, that is a heavily traveled area, especially when we get ready to close Main Street again in the spring and into the summer months, that we may want a more focused enforcement and compliance effort in that area," Fialho said.
Some residents told Testa that they tried going downtown this summer but said there were enough people not wearing masks that they weren't going to continue to support the restaurants.
"That's important, and I think people should be able to feel safe," Testa said.
Dublin and Livermore are among the cities in Alameda County that have adopted administrative fine structures for similar citations, but Fialho said their enforcement effort "has mostly been focused on businesses."
"Dublin has issued less than 10 citations, all of which have been against businesses in non-compliance," Fialho said. "Cooks, waiters -- things of that nature -- not wearing masks while working has been sort of the common theme there, and then Livermore has issued no citations, either to businesses or to the public."
When it comes to mask enforcement, Alameda County's order "makes any violation of the order a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment or both to be pursued by the district attorney," according to a staff report.
Councilmember Kathy Narum said she wasn't "really convinced it's a deterrent."
"I'm not sure that I'm ready to have our police necessarily answering a bunch of calls getting people to wear a mask," Narum said, adding she still "absolutely" supported continued education and additional signage -- especially with improved visuals, because "sometimes I think our signs are too wordy."
Testa said that signage "would be a great addition to an ordinance, but the signage isn't going to change, isn't going to make a difference right now."
"We've already got signage going and everyone knows; they just know that there's no teeth to what those signs say, so it doesn't matter," she said. "The enforcement mechanism will be the deterrent, that will make a difference."
Noting the "gatekeepers" who take visitors' temperatures before they can step inside City Hall, Testa continued, "Aren't we responsible to maintain a safe environment for our residents? How can we set a double standard there?"
Who would be responsible for issuing citations was also a matter of consideration Tuesday evening.
A number of community services and parking enforcement officers, as well as volunteers, are normally dispatched by the Pleasanton Police Department during non-COVID times. However, Fialho said "our volunteers are not in operation currently because they're mostly older and retired, so for safety reasons we've temporarily paused that program."
The job description for the city's community services officers also does not allow them to issue citations.
"To allow them to do that, we would have to engage in what's called a meet-and-confer process with their represented labor organization, and that takes time, and sometimes the outcomes are not swift or desirable to the city," Fialho said.
Parking enforcement officers are limited to parking enforcement activities, and "beyond that, we have one code enforcement officer" that "for a city of our size, is mostly involved in nuisance abatement and other property related activities," he added.
Resident Paulette Salisbury called the proposed ordinance "unethical and unconstitutional" during the public hearing, and said the decision to wear a mask "is a highly personal one and should not be universally mandated."
"All of these measures, while they may be well-attended, have undermined our ability to act as free and independent citizens," Salisbury said. "Since none of you are medical doctors, you're not in a position to dictate or advise on appropriate medical interventions for me and my family."
Local health care worker Nicole Dennis supported mandatory masks in public spaces, especially parks, and expressed concern about the lack of enforcement by the city while the community is also asking local schools to reopen.
"Unfortunately, the infection rates have increased despite the education approach that the city has taken," Dennis said. "It concerns me when I see mixed groups of kids playing in the parks playing basketball, playing volleyball without masks, to then ask the teachers to return to school and expose themselves and their families to risk of infection as well as other kids that are following the CDC guidelines."
Arkin, who recently left the Pleasanton school board after 12 years for her new council position, was the only council member besides Testa who supported the proposed mask mandate. Arkin revealed one of her children had COVID-19 before and "it was very serious, made me very, very worried."
"I would have loved to have my kid fined for not wearing a mask because they did not wear a mask," Arkin said. "It could have been $1,000 fine; it would have been worth it to me for her to get fined so that she would not have gotten it. Because now she has to live with knowing that there could be health ramifications for the rest of her life."