Members of the Imperial City Council and city staff meet in chambers and over Zoom on Aug. 21, where they passed a resolution allowing businesses in the city to open in defiance of state and local health orders. VIDEO SCREEN CAPTURE

Imperial City Council Passes Resolution to Re-Open Starting Aug. 24

Imperial businesses of all stripes were given the go-ahead by their council on Aug. 21 to open their doors starting next week with the “counseling, assistance and guidance” of the city.

Imperial council members Robert Amparano and Karin Eugenio are shown over videoconferencing during the Aug. 21 council meeting where the city passed its resolution opening businesses 5-0. VIDEO SCREEN CAPTURE

Without all the anger and fiery rhetoric on display just two nights earlier, the Imperial City Council reconvened to pass a resolution that will allow businesses in the city to re-open starting Aug. 24 with the same types of safety guidance and standards recommended by the state and county, only on a much accelerated timeline, Mayor Darrell Pechtl said before calling for the vote.

The decision on the resolution was unanimous, and also saw the city vote 5-0 to pass an emergency ordinance regarding outdoor dining that was more procedural than meaningful.

It was the resolution passed, however, that sent a shot across the bow of the county and the state, which Pechtl said he knew had representatives from both watching via live streaming as the decision was made.

“I appeal to the state and county leaders who are listening … hear what we are saying. We’re not trying to be defiant, we’re trying to be supportive,” Pechtl said, adopting a more measured tone Aug. 21, than the anger and defiance so prevalent from all five council members during its Aug. 19 meeting.

Pechtl said the city would abide by the guidance and standards set forth by the county Public Health Department and the state Department of Public Health to open various sectors safely, but “not your timeline,” he added.

“We’re going to let our businesses do what they can do … and let them do it wisely,” the mayor explained.

Pechtl acknowledged some of the “threats” that had been reported to council members that state and county representatives might send in inspectors or officials to issue fines or citations or take away needed permits to operate in the face of the city’s action.

To those businesses, Pechtl said, “We can’t stop them, if they come,” later adding that if state and county officials do show up to any businesses that choose to open, “keep us in the loop. We wish you all well. Good luck.”

Council Member Geoff Dale, who has long been the most angry, vocal and, perhaps, political among the council about the issue of opening up, told those watching via Facebook live on Aug. 21 that if state and county officials show up to shut down Imperial businesses, “this is about control,” and not about keeping people safe from COVID.

Earlier Dale again used the word “hypocrisy” to describe the state and county’s action to allow big-box stores to operate unabated as “essential businesses” while local, small businesses were forced to close for much of the past five months.

“Local businesses would more than take care of their customers better than big-box stores,” he said.

Dale, who has recorded a number of videos to social media, including at least one with more than 4,000 views and hundreds of shares, regarding the state and county’s inaction, was ironically the council member who stopped the city from carrying out the resolution on Aug. 19 to give the county time to work with the state.

County officials announced during a press conference earlier that afternoon they had requested for an immediate move from Stage 1 to Stage 2 “low risk” that was “pending,” but also that health officer, Dr. Stephen Munday, had notified state officials that Imperial County had met all of the criteria to open to a higher rung of Stage 2 and were submitting the “variance criteria attestation form,” which the county did on Aug. 20.

The county had yet to hear back from the state on those requests as of the end of the day, Aug. 21, prompting the city of Imperial to move forward.

Not all Imperial residents were supportive of the direction of the council. Resident Deborah Weeks emailed a public comment to the city that Pechtl read aloud.

“Arrogance has no place in making decisions,” Weeks wrote, adding that the city should be moving forward using “data” and saying the county is so close to reaching the state’s metrics on being able to open.

Then, Imperial resident and city planning commissioner Mark Hammerness addressed the council in public session Aug. 21, encouraging the city to move forward with the resolution.

“Don’t be the barking dog in the yard” with the “snarling teeth” that then backs down never to be taken seriously again, he said.

“The county is not going to be happy with us, the state is not going to be happy with us; tough,” Hammerness said. “Enough is enough.”

He then questioned why Imperial County District 3 Supervisor Michael Kelley, whose district includes Imperial, has never attended any of the council meetings, not even to try to dissuade the city from making this decision.

Kelley did not return a phone call from this newspaper late Aug. 21 seeking comment on the city’s action.

Meanwhile, Imperial City Council Member Robert Amparano, who said he was ready to rule two nights earlier, was ready to open back up and “give our businesses a fighting chance.”

“We’re Imperial. We stand strong. We won’t be divided. We stand united,” he said via Zoom from Florida.

Mayor Pro Tem Karin Eugenio, who was also video conferencing from out of town, said opening up in a safe and cautious manner was her primary concern, as not to endanger the health of people, but she also supported “trying to save what businesses we have left.”

Before calling for the vote, Pechtl, at Eugenio’s request, clarified that no changes had been made to the resolution from two nights before and that, at its most basic, the document called for all businesses to be open starting Aug. 24 with city staff on hand to “provide counseling, assistance, and guidance.” It wasn’t immediately clear how long it would take to actually get businesses open after that initial date.

The emergency ordinance for outdoor dining was intended to be passed without a first reading in the event the county was able to get its variance to open up approved; the ordinance is supposed to facilitate operations more quickly, Pechtl said.

A call seeking comment from Imperial County Supervisors’ Chairman Luis Plancarte also was not returned Aug. 21, but the county did issue a statement shortly after 9 p.m.

“The county of Imperial greatly sympathizes and understands the hardship many small and independent businesses and their employees in Imperial County have endured over the past five months as a result of the restrictions due to COVID-19. However, it is important to remember that both the state of California and the county of Imperial’s health orders remain in effect. …

“For our community to continue with the progress we have made and overcome this pandemic, we need the full cooperation of every city to adopt policies that are consistent with county and state health and safety guidelines. Any city that fails to follow these guidelines and fails to work in unison with the county and the rest of the cities in this community can potentially put us all at risk. County of Imperial officials stated from the beginning of this emergency that we are here for the long-haul because the residents of our county deserve nothing less.

“As an arm of the state, we are obligated to enforce the laws and regulations set for by the state of California, including the health order established by our local Public Health Officer. Enforcing these laws is a duty and responsibility of all local governments to ensure the health and safety of its residents and constituents.

“Imperial County Public Health has the Division of Environmental Health that regulates a number of businesses within Imperial County. We are committed to working closely with our businesses to make sure they have the information necessary to make informed and responsible decisions moving forward on how to reopen safely and responsibly, in compliance with state and county health orders. Our focus is the overall health of all individuals and businesses in Imperial County and any form of reopening our economy should be in a coordinated, accountable, and responsible manner,” according to an edited version of the county statement.

Imperial Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Susan Paradis, who is also running for Imperial City Council in the November general election, offered her opinions as both the chamber manager and a council candidate Aug. 21.

“As CEO of the chamber of Imperial, we feel all businesses are essential. We believe the small business is a much safer place to shop and we want them to be treated equally to the big-box stores. As this resolution has passed we encourage any small business owner to check with their insurance carriers, including workers comp, the state Board of Equalization if applicable; as well as any county or state licensing or permitting agencies they are required to report to prior to opening,” Paradis wrote via Facebook Messenger.

“The chamber is available to assist any business, member or not with ensuring they have a reopening plan available and proper signage available. We have resources for (personal protective equipment) if needed,” she stated.

“As a future Imperial City Council member, this is not how I would have voiced or gone about this process. While I feel exactly the same as the current City Council, I believe they have misled the community,” Paradis wrote.

She is referring to what the county referred to in its statement regarding the state and county licensure that could close businesses that choose to re-open, such as licensed barbers, hair stylists and nail salons, who have state cosmetology licenses, or restaurants that are permitted by Imperial County Environmental Health Department, which operates under the Public Health Department.

“Barbers, hairdressers and salons must adhere to state licensing requirements or stand to lose their license if they open. I am not sure how this will affect dine-in eateries. There are approximately 20 in Imperial, but they must also comply with the state and county health department regulations. I am not sure where gyms fall in line, or places of worship … so essentially the small retail business and all offices are able to open,” Paradis stated.

The resolution that the Imperial City Council passed Aug. 21, states, in part:

“Whereas, over time, the Essential Workforce model has demonstrated itself to be patently unfair; and, 

“Whereas, the City is witness to countless examples of businesses allowed to operate because they are deemed essential while businesses which could be operated in a manner which would pose no greater risk than an essential business are left to ponder their very existence; and, 

“Whereas, the City firmly supports the rule of law and respects the authority of the State of California and the County of Imperial to address matters of public health; and, 

“Whereas, the City believes that criminalizing the behavior of businesses in the limited circumstances found in the City of Imperial is counterproductive and serves only to alienate the very population the City is sworn to protect and serve; and, 

“Whereas, the City finds and directs that utilization of its limited resources is best deployed for the purpose of providing information and education about best practices to conduct business in a manner which protects workers and customers; and, 

“Whereas, if a business in the City of Imperial elects to operate, the City strongly encourages the business to strictly adhere to industry guidance developed by the California Department of Public Health and the COVID-19 Employer Playbook dated July 18, 2020; and, 

“Whereas, activity and exercise has been shown to alleviate the stress associated with the stay at home orders; and, 

“Whereas, COVID19.CA.GOV contains links to provide emotional well-being and support, including reference to 24-hour suicide prevention and domestic violence hotlines; and, 

“Whereas, the City Council believes and finds that its parks can be utilized in a manner that assists and supports it citizens to address emotional and physical issues associated with the stay at home orders by, for example, physical distancing, taking part in outdoor activities only with members of your household and face coverings. 

“Whereas, the City Council further believes and finds that personal care services and fitness facilities can assist and support its citizens, specifically the first responder/essential workforce community, to address emotional and physical health associated with their employment. 

“Now, therefore, be it resolved as follows:

  1. The above-referenced recitals are true and correct and are incorporated herein. 
  2. The City Council finds and declares that the “Essential Workforce” model has outlived whatever use it may have once had and therefor encourages the County of Imperial and State of California to devote its energies to providing information and resources to the creation and maintenance of healthy and safe workplaces. 
  3. The City Council encourages its staff to continue to utilize its limited resources to educate, inform and otherwise assist all businesses to operate in accordance with best practices as set forth by the California Department of Public Health, the Imperial County Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control. Staff is also encouraged to continue its information and education efforts relative to social gatherings and public use of City parks.”
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