The Trader Joe's store in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

Santa Cruz City Council ‘exploring options’ to crack down on anti-mask events like one at Trader Joe’s

Anti-mask demonstrations have occurred across the county and country, and another is expected in Santa Cruz this weekend in conjunction with others nationwide. Police Chief Andy Mills told council members his department is “staffing up” in advance.

The city of Santa Cruz is “exploring options” to address anti-mask demonstrations that have taken place in the city in recent weeks. Maskless protesters have taken to West Cliff Drive, the weekly farmer’s market and, most notably, the Trader Joe’s supermarket downtown.

The issue came up Tuesday night during a Santa Cruz City Council meeting, and elected officials asked staff for recommendations on how to crack down on the behavior, which violates public health guidelines.

Council member Justin Cummings asked city staff to provide the council with recommendations on what additional action the city might be able to take — whether it be an ordinance or something else — to increase the penalties for demonstrators and protect residents from COVID-19 risks associated with masklessness.

Council members Martine Watkins and Renee Golder, along with Mayor Donna Meyers, also sought information on what city leaders could do.

For months, public health officials have urged the public to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Research has shown a reduction in COVID-19 transmission in areas where masks are required in public spaces and inside businesses.

Still, anti-science and anti-mask events have occurred across the country, and another is expected in Santa Cruz on Sunday, Feb. 28, in conjunction with other anti-mask demonstrations nationwide, Police Chief Andy Mills told council members.

Mills said the police department is “staffing up” ahead of that day.

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Police also are working with Trader Joe’s management to prevent a similar event like the one that happened over Valentine’s Day weekend. That demonstration, captured in a now-viral video, saw more than a dozen maskless people skip the store’s outdoor line and fan out inside the store amid startled mask-wearing shoppers and employees. The incident lasted a little more than seven minutes.

Mills received so many inquiries about the incident that he addressed them on his blog, called chiefmills.com.

“Santa Cruz police officers are instructed to issue citations to those protesting in stores for trespassing. The person in control of the store must be willing to sign the complaint,” Mills wrote. However, officers can “give a citation for not wearing a mask. Failure to wear a mask can be a violation of the [Santa Cruz County] public health order and municipal code.”

At issue, Mills wrote, is the penalty for the offense, hence Cummings’ ask of city staff about stricter penalties.

“Trespassers are normally cited and released. If the violation continues, officers can book them into jail. Be aware, holding them in jail is unlikely,” Mills wrote. “It is difficult to get most criminals into jail due to a massive re-alignment of the jails, prisons, and COVID. You should know it is also unlikely suspects will be prosecuted, as the Courts are backed up with serious and violent felony cases. We have written hundreds of citations to people not sheltering in place since the pandemic began. Few, if any, have been prosecuted.”

Mills said police have talked Trader Joe’s management and have advised them about what should be done to protect shoppers and employees should another demonstration occur.