Park Rangers Adjust to New Role in Pandemic

As COVID-19 has reshaped our relationship with public spaces, it has also added challenges for those tasked with maintaining those spaces. At the Sept. 17 Human Relations Commission meeting, the Commission reviewed the state of compliance and enforcement for the new, Pandemic-era rules requiring social distancing and face coverings–jobs performed by the Park Rangers and the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD). At the same time, the Rangers and BHPD have also had to respond to the unforeseen impacts of the virus on the City’s homeless population. 

“One of the new, huge responsibilities for both police and the Rangers has been COVID-19 and the changes that it’s caused to our parks,” said Human Services Administrator Jim Latta. “The Rangers have taken on patrolling social distancing, mask enforcement, and then with the various communities around us who have actually closed their parks, we’ve had a huge influx of transients in our City.” 

In the wake of COVID-19’s initial disruptions, park use dropped significantly to 12,478 visitors in April, according to numbers presented to the Commission. That number climbed back up to 103,065 by May before falling by roughly half to around 53,000 in August. 

Despite the lower number of visitors, Park Rangers conducted over 5,500 enforcement actions in April, over 4,500 of which were for face covering violations and 944 for social distancing. May saw the highest number of enforcement actions by the Rangers, with nearly 9,000 conducted overall, over 5,800 for lack of face coverings and nearly 1,270 for social distancing. 

June saw a dramatic decrease in enforcements by nearly half–down to less than 5,000, followed by nearly 4,270 in July and 2,000 in August. 

The sharp decline in enforcements happened in tandem with a rise in compliance with City public health ordinances. In April, 63 percent of park patrons were in compliance with the City’s face mask mandate and 92 percent in compliance with social distancing rules, according to statistics presented to the Commission. These numbers rose in May to 92 percent and 98 percent, respectively, where they continued to show growth over the next few months. 

Even as the data indicates widespread acceptance of the City’s public health measures in response to the pandemic, Rangers have seen evidence of frustration with the mandates. Speaking about mask requirement signage placed at Coldwater Canyon Park, Park Ranger Supervisor Dan Hernandez shared, “A lot of people who are not a fan of social distancing and mask coverings are actually ripping the signs off, so we constantly have to reattach them to their stanchions.” 

“That’s been going on for quite a while,” he said. 

Commissioner Annette Saleh brought up the weekly rallies in Beverly Gardens Park, which include people who oppose mask requirements and typically have noticeably lower rates of compliance. 

“You don’t tell them that you have an ordinance that they are required to wear masks in the City?” she asked. 

“We allow PD to spearhead that enforcement,” Ranger Hernandez said. 

The Park Rangers have seen a rise in “inappropriate use” of City parks. 

“Probably about 30 percent of the inappropriate use of the park are the transients,” said Latta. “It’s not illegal to be homeless or mentally ill or even sleep in the park, but after 10 p.m., you’re not allowed to camp in the park, and that’s been a big problem lately.” 

The Rangers are currently performing outreach to unhoused people who sleep in the parks on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Latta said. “We’re offering them help if they want it,” he said, adding that the City’s homeless outreach team will be back in October. 

The BHPD has seen a large uptick in calls regarding unhoused individuals, with a 62 percent increase over the period from Jan. 1 to June 30 as compared to 2019, according to BHPD data. Sgt. Sean Smollen, who spoke to the Commission, said this stems from the closure of parks in other cities like West Hollywood and Los Angeles. Beverly Hills did not close its parks after the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Another consequence of the pandemic is that the Rangers have had to push back against personal trainers using the park to exercise clients. Trainers have flocked to the City’s green space with gyms shut down throughout the County. But, as Latta explained, trainers require a permit to conduct their work in City parks. 

“A while back we had someone have a heart attack in the park,” said Latta. “The trainer was pushing that person…From that time on, we realized we had to make sure that people have insurance, just because, otherwise, the City could get sued for people doing professional training in our parks if they’re not insured.” 

Latta added that another large fraction of inappropriate use is made up of off-leash dogs. In those instances, Rangers have to chase down the dog and, often, their owner. “It’s not an easy task,” said Latta. 

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