Orange County officials abruptly canned their year-long practice of reading aloud public comments from residents with medical conditions that prevented them from attending in person during the pandemic.

Now, the only option to be heard at the supervisors’ meetings is to go into the supervisors’ board room and speak — where dozens of other residents and officials are unmasked.

The shift came at Tuesday’s board meeting with no public announcement, as supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do started allowing people into the meeting chambers for the first time in 16 months.

It comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have started to rise again in Orange County, though they remain far lower than the Winter and Spring surges.

County health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, told supervisors Tuesday the number of hospitalized COVID patients in OC has increased from roughly 70 patients last week to 119 patients as of Tuesday.

County supervisors recently nixed COVID updates at their meetings, after more than a year of doing them, even as cases and hospitalizations are ticking up.

The county also has stopped doing daily online reporting of case data after the Fourth of July weekend, shifting to a once-per-week update.

Felicity Figueroa, who frequently submitted written comments during the pandemic, said it’s “extremely disappointing” officials were canceling the chance to comment remotely.

“[Especially] given the uptick in COVID infections and that the majority of people now in attendance at the [Board of Supervisors] meetings have publicly disavowed the vaccine and shared that they get their medical information from Facebook and YouTube,” Figueroa said.

“It is not a safe space for anyone, much less for those of us who have found it necessary to send in our written comments during the pandemic because of health concerns,” she said.

County officials didn’t say why the written comments were canned, but noted residents can now come to the supervisors’ meeting chambers to speak if they want to be heard.

“The County read written comments to accommodate ADA concerns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” a county spokeswoman said in response to questions to County Counsel Leon Page and CEO Frank Kim.

“As Board meetings are now fully reopened to members of the general public, public commenters may provide their public comments in person,” they added.

Many of the in-person public commenters Tuesday opposed COVID vaccinations, prompting Supervisor Katrina Foley to say they were making a “mockery” of the county’s requirement that people in the room “self-attest” to being vaccinated.

Before a person can drop their mask, they have to self-attest they’re fully vaccinated, according to state public health guidelines.

“I am concerned that we’re in here, and supposedly everybody who is speaking has self-attested that they have been vaccinated,” Foley said, to which audience members laughed in response.

“I want the record to reflect that all those that have not been vaccinated are in the room under a mockery of self-attestation,” she added.

“Our vaccination status is none of your business,” a public commenter said later in the meeting.

Foley told Voice of OC she first learned officials nixed email comments the morning of Tuesday’s meeting.

“I requested that public comments be read into the record. My request was declined,” Foley said in an interview.

She said the move is unfair.

“I don’t think it was right to transition without informing the public in advance, so that they had an opportunity to come in if they chose,” she added. 

“I also am concerned that we’re not providing a safe space for people to share their public comment, because we know that people are unvaccinated in the chambers and they’re unwilling to wear a mask.”

Supervisor Katrina Foley

“For those people who are nervous about COVID and the variants, we’re not allowing them any place to share their comments. I don’t think it’s right.”

Over the past year, Anaheim resident Pat Davis has frequently submitted written comments critical of the supervisor’s handling of homelessness, which were read aloud at the meeting.

She and other residents submitted written comments to be read at Tuesday’s meeting, and were told by Page he won’t be reading public comments anymore.

“On my doctor’s advice, especially as the COVID variant numbers increase, I have been told to continue to stay away from public gatherings particularly indoors and unsupervised,” Davis said in her email to Page, which had the comments she wanted read aloud Tuesday.

Davis said Page hasn’t answered how officials decided to stop accommodating residents with disabilities by reading their comments aloud.

Page didn’t respond to that question from Voice of OC either.

“I was shocked to receive Leon Page’s reply as though it was such a simple, reasoned solution when in fact the pandemic is ongoing and I’ve now had three of my doctors tell me absolutely do not go into meeting rooms or other confined spaces during this ongoing pandemic.”

Anaheim resident Pat Davis, who has frequently submitted written comments critical of the supervisor’s handling of homelessness

“The COVID Delta variant and others to come are deadly. All say it will get worse. Dr. Chau just gave increasing numbers which will continue to worsen as the variant infection numbers grow,” she added.”

County officials started reading the comments last summer after an ACLU attorney warned county officials they needed to accommodate speakers who couldn’t speak in person because of disabilities that prevented them from safely appearing in person during the pandemic.

Rules around how the meeting is conducted are often led by the supervisors’ chair, who is Andrew Do this year.

Do didn’t respond to a message asking if he made the decision to stop allowing public comments to be read aloud, nor did Page, Kim and county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson.

He has routinely expressed frustration with public commenters over the years, at one point trying to restrict the public from making comments he considered offensive at Board of Supervisors meetings in 2015.

Last month, Do canceled a public comment opportunity that 116 people signed up to speak on, just after he expressed doubt that the residents’ voices would really matter.

“I don’t know if the public comments will necessarily guide how we think,” Do said at the Jun 8 meeting.

At Tuesday’s meeting, when the last resident finished speaking, Do let out a deep sigh.

“I keep expecting public comments to be over. Are we in fact over now?” he said.

Davis said the county’s new policy means she and other speakers won’t have a voice at the meetings.

“With my health issues and for those around me I cannot take the risk,” she said.

“Especially when I watch how the room is managed.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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