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One by one, cities have done away with the emergencies that they enacted back in March of last year when the pandemic first grabbed a hold of life in Orange County.

The statewide reopening last month has brought back some type of a sense of normalcy in the county, leaving city officials grappling with whether governments should continue with their local emergencies.

The decision could also potentially mean limiting a city’s ability to get more federal or state funds related to the pandemic.

San Juan Capistrano and Yorba Linda city council members will decide tonight at their respective council meetings if they want to join the growing list of cities terminating their local pandemic state of emergencies.

“Because the City has already received both federal and state relief funds during the past year related to the COVID-19 emergency, there does not appear to be any reason to continue proclaiming a local emergency,” reads a Yorba Linda city staff report on the item. 

According to a San Juan Capistrano city staff report, however, the move would not inhibit their ability to get reimbursements and financial support from the state or federal government for their Coronavirus response.

Fashion Island in Newport Beach on July 12, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In Newport Beach, Councilman Will O’Neill argued in June money should not be a reason to continue the emergency proclamation when there is no longer a condition of extreme peril because of the Coronavirus in the city.

Newport Beach was the first Orange County city to end its state of emergency with support from residents last month, one week after the statewide reopening in mid-June.

Their decision to terminate the local emergency came the same day County officials chose to tie the countywide coronavirus emergency to the one proclaimed by the state to ensure they continue to receive state and federal funding as they relate to the pandemic.

[Read: Newport Beach Ends COVID Local Emergency, County Supervisors Continue State of Emergency]

Meanwhile, people have been showing up to Orange County Supervisors meetings for months demanding that the county end the emergency declaration.

Some cities are following the county’s lead by choosing to extend their local emergency.

Laguna Beach and Orange City Councils both extended their local emergencies at recent meetings. Laguna Beach had a unanimous vote, while Orange was split 5-2. 

“The purpose of keeping it going has been the funding part of it and that we are almost exhausted the use of any CARES act funds, and so the direction that we have received in the past is as long as we are using CARES act dollars that the emergency should continue,” replied Orange City Manager Rick Otto.

This is likely the city’s last extension, Otto said, as he confirmed the city is not in a state of emergency. 

Downtown Laguna beach on June 9, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said in a Monday phone interview state and federal reimbursements also played a role in why the city decided to continue their local emergency through August.

“We wanted to make sure we would still be eligible for those,” he said.

It is not just about money. 

Special powers held by city officials are lifted when cities end their local emergencies.

“In Newport, we had given additional authority to our city manager that would normally be vested in our city council and so once the emergency terminated, the power that we had given our city manager reverted back to the city council for normal decision making,” O’Neill said in a Monday interview.

“In terms of the everyday changes, I don’t believe that there really has been an everyday change.”

Others are following the lead of Newport Beach City Council members.

“I know that a number of cities are starting to look at the same issue and I suspect that as they try to grapple with the issue of emergency powers, most will come to the same conclusion,” O’Neill said.

Earlier this month, Fullerton and Huntington Beach City Councilmembers unanimously voted to end their local emergency.

Huntington Beach Councilman Mike Posey cited summer tourism and events like the City’s Fourth of July celebration, the U.S. Open of Surfing and the Pacific Airshow as reasons to do away with the emergency declaration.

“So, what better way to announce to the world that Huntington Beach is open for business? We’re eager to fill our hotels, we’re eager to fill our restaurants,” Posey said at the meeting. 

A medical worker at a drive-through testing site on March 19, 2020 at St. Jude Heritage Medical in Yorba Linda. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Over 1.8 million people in Orange County population are vaccinated and over 5,100 people have died from the virus, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Meanwhile in Laguna Beach, Whalen said the Delta variant also played a role in the extension of the emergency at the request of City Manager Shohreh Dupuis.

“She wanted to make sure that in case that really flared up, she would still have the emergency powers under the declaration,” Whalen said.

He said the emergency powers would allow the city officials to take actions to protect public health without a council meeting.

“Under that part of the municipal code the city manager could implement orders that she thought were necessary to protect public health or safety in the city and do that without a meeting. She would consult with the mayor and the city attorney, which is how we did things for over a year with the initial onset of the pandemic.”

Bob Whalen, Laguna Beach Mayor

Even with vaccinations, increased COVID positivity rates and spread of the Delta variant across southern California has worried experts and officials. 

Neighboring Los Angeles County reinstated its indoor mask mandate for the unvaccinated and vaccinated this past Saturday, just a month after the state’s ban was lifted. 

“Lifting a state of emergency doesn’t mean that people should stop taking COVID seriously, it means that we can no longer make an emergency finding. People should continue to take COVID seriously, and I think most people are.”

Will O’Neill, Newport Beach City Councilman

Whalen said he predicts his city will end their state of emergency after August.

“We’ve all learned through this pandemic, things can change and, you know, evolve quite rapidly,” he said. “Based on the current situation here, I would think so.”

Yorba Linda’s City Council meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. and can be watched live through the city’s website.

San Juan Capistrano’s meeting starts at 5 p.m. and can be watched live through the city’s website.

Jillie Herrold is a reporting fellow at Voice of OC and can be reached at jherrold@voiceofoc.org.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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