City of Berkeley to administer fines for mask violations, act on fire risk in Berkeley Hills

Photo of a person holding a mask
Momoka Sasaki/File
During a Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday, members discussed and took action on public safety issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires. In response to COVID-19 concerns, an ordinance to allow city employees to cite individuals and businesses failing to follow city COVID-19 guidelines was approved.

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On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council took action at its first meeting back from its summer recess and addressed items dealing with two major public safety threats: the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires.

During the meeting, the City Council approved an ordinance allowing city staff to administer citations to individuals and businesses violating the city’s COVID-19 health officer orders, including requirements to use facial coverings while out of the home and to restrict outdoor gatherings to fewer than 12 people.

With the passage of the ordinance, $100 penalties can now be issued for violations and can be escalated up to $500 a day for repeat violations.

So far, the city has focused on using education and outreach through various departments to encourage compliance with the orders, the item states. While most residents have followed the orders voluntarily, possible actions for staff to take were previously limited in situations where education and outreach were not sufficient.

“I see a lot of mask compliance when I’m out and about, but there are some people who just are not taking this seriously. Those are the people we really need to go after,” said Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani during the meeting.

To minimize the potential for citations disproportionately impacting low-income individuals, the ordinance provides for a process where penalties may be waived in cases of financial hardship. An addition made to the item recommended that any revenue collected from fines be used for the purchase and distribution of masks to those who need them.

City staff will continue to focus on encouraging people to wear facial coverings and socially distance voluntarily, even with the passage of the ordinance. According to the item, city policy will be to prioritize enforcement at social gatherings indoors, or with 12 or more people outdoors.

“If you’re not going to do it for yourself, please think about others,” Kesarwani said. “We want to get to a point where we can get our kids back in school, so we all need to do our part.”

Last weekend, a video showing people lighting fireworks and burning trash at a lookout point along Grizzly Peak Boulevard raised concerns about the possibility of a fire breaking out in the Berkeley Hills, according to an emergency item authored by Councilmember Susan Wengraf.

The proposal calls for all jurisdictions responsible for the area, including Oakland, UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District Police Department, to work cooperatively and take immediate action to address the situation.

“Wildfire doesn’t know boundaries, and nor should jurisdictions know boundaries when it comes to enforcement,” Wengraf said during the meeting. “Everybody needs to work together to collaborate and stop this very, very dangerous behavior that is threatening all of our safety.”

The sound of fireworks coming from Grizzly Peak Boulevard and neighboring lookout areas has been reported numerous times since June, according to the item, heightening anxieties among residents during the fire season.

According to the item, attempts by law enforcement to curb the dangerous activity have been ineffective, and signs prohibiting nighttime parking have failed to prevent people from gathering at the lookouts. As wildfires continue devastating much of the West Coast, the city is now calling for a “more aggressive” multijurisdictional approach to prevention.

“A little bit more than a year ago, this Council declared wildfire safety and prevention a top priority,” Wengraf said. “The item that I brought forward this evening is basically following through on that commitment.”

Jacob Souza is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.