Alameda will issue fines for not wearing masks, those failing to social distance

Alameda became the second city in the county to allow the issuance of citations to those who do not wear masks during the pandemic and fail to adhere to social distancing protocols. Fines will begin at $250 for a first offense, followed by $500 for a second offense, and increase to $1,000 for three or more infractions.

The Alameda City Council made the decision on Tuesday after receiving some resistance from those who believe the ordinance is based on intimidation and too strict for a city that has one of the lowest rates of covid-19 infections in Alameda County.

The ordinance focuses on businesses in the city’s commercial corridors and large gatherings in some park and recreation spots in Alameda. City officials believe the citations will act as a deterrent for some establishments who have shown to be out of compliance with some permitted outdoor uses.

Livermore began issuing fines last month of up to $100 to those not wearing a mask in public. Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties, unlike Alameda County, already issue citations for those not complying with mask-wearing and social distancing orders. Contra Costa County’s fine schedule is similar to the City of Alameda. Santa Clara County allows fines of up to $500.

“We have a pandemic. It’s real. I believe it,” Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said following a number of public speakers who questioned the severity of the covid-19 pandemic. Others added the ordinance is unnecessary since Alameda has largely avoided large outbreaks of covid-19.

The total number of confirmed covid-19 cases in Alameda is 330, as of Tuesday. By contrast, neighboring Oakland has reported 7,448 cases during the same period, and San Leandro has registered 1,016. Only three cities in the county have lower rates of infection per 100,000 residents than Alameda–Albany, Dublin and Piedmont.

“We hope that we don’t have to charge a single person and that it shows that we want people to take it seriously,”

-Amy Wooldridge, Alameda Recreation and Parks director.

“We are fortunate as a city that our per capita rate is on the low end in Alameda County,” Ashcraft acknowledged, but added, Alameda County, as a whole, remains mired with high rates of the infection. “We are doing it for our businesses. Our individuals. Our school children,” she said of Tuesday night’s ordinance. “I want to open the economy.” In order for a return to economic normalcy, Ashcraft said. “We have to stop the hard times.”

Alameda’s main business corridors on Park and Webster Streets, have suffered greatly during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn. The number of vacant storefronts on Park Street, for instance, continues to grow. Earlier this summer, the city attempted to help small businesses with economic aid and reconfigured streets to allow restaurants and businesses to use street parking spaces for everyday business. But since then, city officials have encountered some lax enforcement of social distancing protocols by businesses. In some places, a prescribed eight-foot-wide space for pedestrians to use sidewalks has slowly been gobbled up by restaurants hoping to fit a few more tables for diners.

Andrew Thomas, Alameda planning director, said businesses, not patrons will be the focus of the ordinance, and citations will come only as a last resort for repeated non-compliance. 

Enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing at city parks and the beach, however, is a more dicey proposition. Several councilmembers voiced concerns over the possibility that minorities could be unfairly signaled out for citations. “Maybe someone is a different color and they demand we fine them,” Alameda Councilmember Jim Oddie said, who later referenced “BBQ Becky,” a viral video in 2018 of a white woman at Lake Merritt in Oakland who called the police on Black people enjoying a day at the park. Councilmember Malia Vella also questioned how people would be cited at parks and beaches, especially those who do not live in Alameda.

Large gatherings at Alameda’s shoreline, along with its parks have grown in size and frequency during the summer. Park and Recreation staff have reported parents helping children over six-foot temporary fencing at playgrounds, along with large organized soccer and baseball games, said Amy Wooldridge, Alameda Recreation and Parks director. Alameda County allows the use of large fields, but only for those within your social bubble of 12 people. 

In many cases, 20-30 people have gathered for games, including a baseball game witnessed recently by staff that included umpires, Wooldridge said. Heavy barriers were contemplated by city staff to dissuade large gatherings in fields, but the cost is prohibitive and runs the possibility of damaging the turf. The use of timed sprinklers to ward off ballplayers was also discussed by city staff. Wooldridge reiterated that citations would only focus on large gatherings. “We hope that we don’t have to charge a single people and that it shows that we want people to take it seriously,” she said.

Councilmember Tony Daysog, who was the lone vote against the ordinance, attempted to sway his colleagues toward eschewing the park and recreation component of the ordinance and, instead, focus on businesses in the commercial corridors. “It’s sending out a lot of heebie jeebies in the public, especially when the fines are $250,” Daysog said. “If we’re encouraging businesses to open, it’s fair to ask them to be fully compliant.” Daysog’s motion failed to gain a second. Ashcraft disagreed with Daysog’s view. Individuals, not only businesses, should contribute in stopping the spread of covid-19, she added. “It’s about personal responsibility.”