In response to public health restrictions ordered by county health departments and the resulting disruption of local business, a number of California cities are exploring whether or not to create their own health departments. While city health departments were common in California during the 1800s and early 1900s, most cities deferred this governmental function to the better-equipped county level. A number of California statutes empower city governments to create their own health departments.
There are four California cities that have historically maintained their own health departments. These include the cities of Pasadena, Long Beach, Berkeley and Vernon. Berkeley’s Public Health Department was established in 1880 and Pasadena’s health department was founded in 1892. Long Beach recently celebrated its 100th anniversary while the City of Vernon is the relative newcomer, having been constituted in its current form in 1986.
In stark contrast to LA County Health Department’s order that limited restaurants to take-out, drive-thru or delivery, Pasadena’s Public Health Department had permitted until early December indoor dining between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. A number of cities have now expressed interest in creating their own public health departments, including West Covina and Lancaster.
Under California’s Health and Safety Code, the governing body of a county is required to take measures necessary to preserve and protect the public health in unincorporated areas. (See Cal. Health & Safety Code Sec. 101025.) Cities, on the other hand are statutorily required to take measures to preserve and protect public health in their city. (See Cal. Health & Safety Code Sec. 101450.) While each city is required to appoint its own public health officer, cities are permitted to make arrangements for the county to exercise the same powers and duties within the city as are conferred upon the city health officers by law. (See Cal. Health & Safety Code Sec. 101460.) Most cities in California have deferred their authority to the counties.
As such, cities considering the establishment of their own health departments as a way to achieve less restrictive health orders during the pandemic will need to consider several factors, such as what arrangements are already in place that cede authority to the county, the expense of running their own health department, and whether the city wants to take on the responsibility for public health within the city. In addition, a review of where a county health order and a city health order may create conflicts will be necessary, especially since state law still vests in the county certain enforcement actions dealing with public health within their respective jurisdictions.