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More Orange County cities are examining their local COVID-19 states of emergency as new cases and trends are starting to mirror last Summer’s wave. 

Most cities in Orange County have officially been in local emergencies for over a year now, swiftly setting up the status in March as the pandemic swept through. 

At least nine cities across Orange County have ended their emergencies while others move to reinforce and extend their emergency protocols.

The primary benefits of a state of emergency are access to special federal and state resources and the ability to recoup some city funds spent on responding to the pandemic, according to a staff report from the city of Laguna Niguel. 

Local emergency status also lets city staff operate independently of the city council, often raising the amount of cash city managers are allowed to spend on contracts without having to bring an approval in front of the council. 

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The first city to rescind their state of emergency was Laguna Woods four months ago. The decision did not include a staff report in the council’s agenda, which voted unanimously to pass the item. Details on the discussion were unavailable as Laguna Woods does not post meeting recordings. 

Following them, the Newport Beach City Council unanimously cancelled its emergency on June 22, when it remained unclear whether the cancellation would affect funding from the state or federal government. 

But some council members said that shouldn’t be a factor. 

“It kind of comes back to that issue of: should governments have an emergency beyond the time when the emergency exists? And if the only answer is money they’re doing it for a horrific reason,” said Newport Beach City Councilman Will O’Neill during the June meeting.  

The cities of Fullerton, Brea, Tustin, Villa Park, Laguna Niguel, San Clemente and Yorba Linda dropped their emergency declarations over the months of July and August, with multiple staff reports indicating the state and federal government confirmed the cancellation of the local emergency would not negatively impact the relief funds sent to the city. 

Those cancellations came as new infections steadily climbed, going from 54 newly reported cases on July 1 to 665 cases on August 1, to 1,213 new cases reported on August 18.

Nearly every other city in Orange County still has their state of emergency in effect, according to a chart created by San Clemente city staff, which sampled 25 of Orange County’s 34 cities. 

A Voice of OC review of the remaining cites found no additional cities had dropped their state of emergency. 

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Those cities all had a variety of reasons for leaving, with Villa Park city staff saying the city wasn’t even using the emergency powers it had set up for itself and that the city’s request for funds through the Federal Emergency Management System had been denied due to the city’s minimal losses. 

San Clemente Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, one of the biggest proponents of removing the emergency status, said at this point it’s up to people to make their own decisions and that case rates were not high enough to justify an emergency. 

“We’re not in a state of crisis and disaster when it comes to hospitalization … it’s not legal or productive in my opinion to act in this state of emergency when we’re not.” Ferguson said in a phone call with Voice of OC on Monday. “There are vulnerable populations, and they need to make their decisions to vaccinate or stay home … all those decisions belong to the person.”

When asked about the rising case count, Ferguson said the council could reinstate a state of emergency “at an hour’s notice,” if it became necessary. 

But on the opposite side, there are cities who are discussing re-upping their emergency orders. While the Costa Mesa City Council have made numerous changes to their state of emergency over the last two months, such as bringing their masking guidance into line with the state department of public health, they have not discussed repealing the emergency. 

Tonight, the Westminster City Council is set to decide whether or not to leave their state of emergency in place, with city staff calling on council members to keep it in place. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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