The possible creation of a separate Public Health Department for the City of Beverly Hills was the main topic of discussion at the City Council’s Dec. 8 Special Study Session. The concept was first introduced at the Dec. 1 Study Session, in response to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health) Order that prohibits in-person dining. The Council has since approved a resolution, sending a letter to County Health officials opposing that Public Health Order. The letter cited a lack of data that supports a link between in-person dining (including outdoor dining) and the surge in COVID-19 cases. As evidenced by the public comments at recent Council hearings, as well as the amount of correspondence received by City officials, the decision to curtail restaurant operations has been devastating to businesses in Beverly Hills. Although opponents of the dining prohibition have recently gained some victories in the Los Angeles Superior Court, this week’s Regional Stay at Home Order imposed by the State will continue to keep restaurants closed for any on-premises dining.
The notion of creating a City Public Health Department for Beverly Hills sprang from the restaurant health orders. It is, however, a complicated proposition. Like many other Southern California cities, Beverly Hills has been under the jurisdiction (and contracted with) the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health for several decades. The earliest date that the County’s public health jurisdiction over the City could be terminated is July 1 of 2021.
The broad mission of the County Department of Public Health is to protect health, prevent disease, and promote health and well-being for everyone in Los Angeles County. The department’s governing body also has the ability to take necessary measures such as the adoption of ordinances, regulations and orders to ensure the health of over 10 million people. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the question of whether it best serves Beverly Hills’ 35,000 residents to be included in such a sizable constituency.
During the pandemic, the public visibility of the County department has increased considerably. Breaking away from the county to create a separate department for Beverly Hills would require a substantial undertaking of time, planning and resources. In fact, only three cities in the entire state presently operate their own Health Departments: Pasadena, Long Beach and Berkeley. Those departments were created in some cases more than a century ago.
Nonetheless, City Councilmember Lili Bosse has spearheaded the idea of a separate City Health Department for Beverly Hills.
“I think that we have certainly shown that health is a priority in terms of leadership and the choices that we’ve made as a City,” Bosse said. “So, for me, I believe this is the absolute next step in taking our City to that place.”
“I think that as we look at what opportunities there are and their costs and all the rest, I think we should take a long view of this, beyond the world of COVID-19 into how we envision managing the public health of our City,” Councilmember Dr. Julian Gold said. “As a small City that’s well endowed, I think we have opportunities here that other cities may not.” Gold added, “I would just like us not to be short sighted. This is not only about coping, it’s really about a longer-term vision for the public health of the City.”
“And I completely agree,” Bosse responded. “We are a City that has been independent in terms of police, in terms of fire and in terms of schools. And that’s why people live here as opposed to L.A., Brentwood or other places.”
Other councilmembers disagreed, arguing that the creation of a City Health Department doesn’t meet the needs of the moment and would be a mismanagement of City funds and staff.
Councilmember John Mirisch said he considered the idea of creating a City Health Department to be a “knee jerk overreaction. The notion that a city of 35,000 people would have its own Health Department in a county with 10 million people doesn’t make sense,” Mirisch said.
“I get it, we may have issued more tickets than other cities in the county, but you know what, winning a race to the bottom is nothing to be proud of,” Mirisch said. “We’ve made zero arrests or citations–or maybe one after the fact–at some of the super spreader events that continue to take place in our City. And that’s where we can start showing that we’re taking this seriously if we really do want to be the healthiest City.”
“I think we’d be better off spending our resources, time, and expertise efforts in terms of specific things that would promote health in the City, as opposed to building a bureaucracy around a public health department,” Vice Mayor Robert Wunderlich said. “Are we better off having our own health department or do we want to do things to promote health,” Wunderlich asked. “It’s not necessary to have our own health department to do things to promote health.”
Despite significant logistical and financial challenges, the Council directed City staff to continue to move forward with help and input from the City’s Medical Advisory Task Force.
“This was a very high-level overview,” Mayor Friedman said. “Creating another bureaucracy would be a giant, giant leap for us. Having said that, I don’t think that we were unhappy with the decision that county health made. I think we were unhappy with the way they got to that decision. As the judge stated, there was no data or scientific evidence for them can make that kind of decision.”
Last week, the California Restaurant Association (CRA) filed a lawsuit in hopes of blocking the county ban to end in-person dining. Following the Dec. 8 hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled that Los Angeles County health officials “failed to perform the required risk-benefit analysis” when putting another pause on outdoor dining as a coronavirus-control measure. “By failing to weigh the benefits of an outdoor dining restriction against its costs, the county acted arbitrarily, and its decision lacks a rational relationship to a legitimate end,” Chalfant wrote in his ruling. “The balance of harms works in petitioners’ favor until such time as the county concludes after proper risk-benefit analysis that restaurants must be closed to protect the healthcare system.”
While Chalfont’s ruling was sympathetic towards the restaurant industry, he noted that Governor Gavin Newsom’s Regional Stay-at-Home order, which took effect Dec. 6, also includes a ban on in-person outdoor dining. Chalfant instead instructed the county against imposing its dining ban beyond the original three-week time period, which ends Dec. 16. The state’s order, at a minimum, will be in place until Dec. 27. However, Chalfant said the county–which is obliged to adhere to the state’s order–can only extend the restriction beyond that “after conducting an appropriate risk-benefit analysis.”