City council meeting

A group in support of naming Tracy as a business sanctuary city watches the special Tracy City Council meeting outside the chambers Tuesday evening.

Eyes were on city council Tuesday night as residents waited to see what city officials would decide on how Tracy would respond to the state of California’s newest COVID-19 restrictions.

After nearly two hours of public comment, an hour and a half of discussion and four motions, the Tracy City Council voted 3-2 in a special meeting, with Mayor Robert Rickman and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young dissenting, to minimize the use of criminal enforcement for non-compliance of COVID-19 restrictions, instead letting the burden of criminal enforcement fall onto the public agencies directly affected while Tracy Police Department would still document incidents and educate the public. Secondly, council voted 4-1, with Rickman dissenting, to form a COVID-19 strategies committee between city staff and business stakeholders.

The two motions that didn’t pass were the small businesses-backed motion to declare Tracy as a sanctuary city and a motion to file an injunction against the state as it pertained to the qualifications of what is deemed an essential business. Both motions failed 2-3, with Councilmembers Dan Arriola, Veronica Vargas and Rhodesia Ransom dissenting.

According to a Yelp Local Economic Impact Report — referenced also at the city council meeting — as of Aug. 31, over 160,000 businesses have closed in the U.S. since the start of the coronavirus pandemic back in March.

It was the hope of small businesses in Tracy that the city would follow the examples of the cities of Atwater and Coalinga — who declared earlier this year that they would allow all businesses within their limits to be essential and open — in an effort to push back Tracy businesses being part of the pandemic statistic. Making this same declaration for Tracy was especially supported by churches and businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industry that were forced to cease indoor business operations again when San Joaquin County moved back into the “widespread” purple tier category of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

Heather Smiddy, owner of the downtown restaurant Chapter 2 submitted a petition of nearly 2,000 signatures to urge the council to support labeling Tracy as a sanctuary city. Just the week prior, Smiddy led the Fight for Freedom at the Fountain protest in front of Tracy City Hall, which was attended by small businesses and supporters of opening up all businesses and disregarding the state’s 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. limited shelter-in-place order.

“We’re not here to argue the reality of COVID, though I would like to see some actual numbers for the city of Tracy itself. Instead we’re here to face the reality of people losing their livelihoods,” said Smiddy during her time for public comment that night, noting the 240 active businesses in Tracy that were most likely facing financial hardships due to being restricted by California’s purple tier. “We are not here asking for handouts. We are asking just to be allowed to work and to run the businesses that we have paid our dues to open just like the other businesses in town.”

Parties from both sides of the argument appeared in about 30 public comments. Those in support of declaring Tracy as a sanctuary city argued for the people to exercise “personal responsibility” on their social decisions during the pandemic. Those not in support asked the council to make their decisions based on the facts presented by scientific data.

Although the council largely agreed that the state’s deliberation of which businesses were considered essential was flawed — referencing many times throughout the night that larger corporations and big box retailers like Costco and Target have been less regulated — their philosophies differed when it came to how the city would respond.

The problem presented, should Tracy declare itself as a sanctuary city, would be the potential for the state to withhold aid such as Coronavirus Relief Funds provided by the federal government’s CARES Act, according to City Manager Jenny Haruyama. In July, the City of Tracy submitted a funding application and was allocated close to $1.2 million. The state also oversees the allocation of any Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, of which Tracy hopes to claim an additional $500,000. If the state chose to withhold funding from Tracy, which is currently in a $6 million and growing deficit, projects planned from these relief funds would have to be paid for out of the City’s general fund.

Additionally, the city declaring itself as a sanctuary city would not guarantee protections for businesses as agencies like Cal OSHA and Alcoholic Beverage Control would still have the authority to instill penalties and revoke licenses.

“As elected officials, we are elected to make difficult choices, and this is definitely one of them,” said Arriola, who made both of the motions that passed Tuesday night. “We hear our businesses are dying, but we also hear our people are dying as well, and we really need to find a balance there.”

Arriola noted that not only was the pandemic creating a public health crisis, but it was creating a financial health crisis as well. He advocated for creating data-driven solutions and listening to professional experts who were more informed and experienced in the subject matter.

“I think what I’m struggling with is that the only proposal I’ve heard tonight is one, and it is overly broad. And that proposal is simply a sanctuary city, which means to open up everything,” said Arriola. “I think if we take a realistic look, we know that is dangerous. It’s a bit reckless. It is too overly broad for the specific problems that a diverse array of businesses and people are dealing with.”

Although vaccines for COVID-19 are being developed, the council was aware that the effects of the coronavirus could be present up until 2022. For Young and Rickman, the current restrictions set in place didn’t seem feasible if they could be potentially in effect that long.

“My concern is what’s realistic. What is our ask?” said Young, who expressed her apprehensions from inconsistent data and didn’t want the city to just comply with all mandates out of fear. “If we don’t feel that there is going to be any kind of real grasp of this coronavirus by 2022, what is going to be realistic? What are we going to do?”

Rickman, who strongly advocated his support for places of worship, asked Tracy Police Chief Sekou Millington to clarify the department’s stance on its level of enforcement. Earlier in the week, Tracy Police Department released the statement:

“The Tracy Police Department’s position remains consistent since the start of the pandemic. Tracy Police Department will not arrest people for violations of the Governor’s latest order. We will continue to prioritize emergency calls for service and assist in educating the public in our day-to-day interactions. City of Tracy is confident that through our Economic Development Team’s proactive business outreach and our public education efforts in coordination with local public health officials, our Tracy residents and businesses will continue to help fight the spread of COVID-19 by voluntarily complying with the State’s Public Health orders.”

Millington reiterated the sentiments of TPD’s past statements and noted that the department has not had to resort to doing any criminal arrests. He stressed that the TPD would follow up on any compliance violations they received but the level of enforcement was based on the severity of each case individually.

Smiddy released a statement the morning after the council meeting, expressing her disappointment in the meeting’s outcome.

“I’d like to thank the thousands of you who supported my quest to keep our businesses open. Although I’m extremely disappointed we lost this fight, I have some peace knowing you are a community who genuinely cares,” she said, thanking Rickman and Young for their support and condemning the actions of Arriola, Ransom and Vargas. “Never in my life would I have imagined that in America, I’d have to beg for the ability to go to work, to be allowed to exercise, or to have the freedom to go to church. Yet, here we are. Congrats.”

• Contact Brianna Guillory at bguillory@tracypress.com or call 209-830-4229.

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