(CN) — About 25 protesters picketed outside LA City Hall on Friday morning, demanding that public access be restored to the building. The protest was organized by Housing is a Human Right, the housing advocacy arm of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit healthcare provider. Most of the protesters appeared to be employed by or in some way connected to the organization.
"Everything is open right now," said Susie Shannon, policy director for Housing Is A Human Right. "Stadiums are open, schools and libraries are open, concert halls are open. The Hollywood Bowl is open. It seems like the only thing that isn’t open right now is City Hall, which is like the people’s building."
LA City Hall and most of the city and county's other governmental buildings have been closed to the public since the start of the pandemic. Although the city council resumed in-person meetings in June (a step the County Board of Supervisors has yet to take), the council chambers have been closed to members of the public, including reporters.
People have been allowed to make public comment at city council meetings by telephone, but protesters said it was difficult to have the same impact without appearing in person. Council members can often be seen looking at their phones or talking to staffers during public comment periods. But the sight of hundreds of people filling the cavernous council chambers is hard to ignore. In previous years, large turnout from the public for a particular meeting sent a message to public officials.
"How can people fully engage and participate with the repesentatives when they’re not allowed in the building?" said Shannon. "We just want to know what’s the plan? What’s the timeline?"
There is currently no plan to re-open City Hall to the public.
"We cannot afford for Council Chambers to become a super-spreader location, hindering the ability for the City to conduct its business,” said City Council President spokesperson Sophie Gilchrist. "We all want to go back to normal, but we need to do so when it’s safe.”
LA County is averaging roughly 1,300 new coronavirus infections every day, according to the county's heath department. That number has been rising over the last month, although it is still far less than the August spike brought on by the Delta variant. Both the city and the county have adopted mask and vaccine mandates: people must be vaccinated to enter most indoor venues, including restaurants, salons and shopping malls.
Founded in 1987, the nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation claims to be the largest provider of HIV/AIDS medication in the world, serving more than a million clients in 45 countries. It takes in more than a billion dollars in revenue every year, through its chain of pharmacies and thrift stores.
It is also an enormous political force in the city and the state, sponsoring numerous ballot measures relating to condom use in pornographic films, prescription drug prices and housing. It has been fervent opponent of housing density, loudly opposing bills in Sacramento that would make it easier to construct large apartment buildings. It has also been a vocal proponent of rent control. It has, in the past, feuded with Mayor Eric Garcetti and some city councilmembers.
Shortly before taking office, in 2020, City Councilman Kevin de Leon worked for AHF as a consultant, for which he was paid more than $100,000. A spokesman for de Leon said, in an email, "As we head into the winter months where a spike in COVID cases is a very real threat – the vast majority of City Hall staff will continue working from home, and we will continue to welcome public comment by phone.”
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