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Sonoma County adopts fines for health order violations, conceding education hasn’t limited virus spread

New Sonoma County coronavirus compliance tip lines

Phone: 1-833-SAFE707 (1-833-723-3707)

Email: safe707@sonoma-county.org

Online: https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Services/SoCo-Report-It/Submit-a-Service-Request

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Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Sonoma County on Thursday gave civil authorities in local government the power to issue fines to individuals and business operators who refuse to follow pandemic safety orders and measures designed to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus.

But in adopting a new civil enforcement ordinance, a unanimous Sonoma County Board of Supervisors made clear its interest in continued efforts to win voluntary compliance with public health orders, rather than rely on citations and fines.

The intent, Supervisor James Gore said, “is not to penalize” but to educate the public about keeping each other safe, and then “cite people who are jerks, who are looking back at our compassionate enforcement and saying, ‘I’m not going to put my mask on. I’m not going to shut my business.’”

The new ordinance provides the tool to do that, allowing for individuals to be cited and fined $100 for non-commercial violations.

Commercial violations may be subject to civil penalties of $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000, depending if it’s the first, second or third violation by the same party.

Sonoma County’s new ordinance, effective immediately, is similar to those adopted in neighboring counties Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Yolo counties, and comes amid a statewide surge in COVID-19 transmission.

Locally, new infections have soared in recent weeks to nearly 3,300 cases ‒ and probably more. A technical glitch in the state reporting system has interfered with the exact count from private testing labs.

The county had reported 44 deaths as of Wednesday night, up by two from earlier in the week. Both were women who were over the age of 65 with underlying health conditions. One lived in a skilled nursing home, while the other was in a residential care facility, expanding the toll that the pandemic has taken on senior home residents, who account for more than 80% of the county’s coronavirus deaths.

In adopting the enforcement ordinance, supervisors endorsed formal language that acknowledged existing measures “have not been sufficient to limit infection spread.” The new rules provide for civil penalties enforceable by non-law enforcement personnel, including county code enforcement inspectors, district attorney investigators and park rangers, as well as sheriff’s deputies.

Cities in the county also may implement the ordinance or adopt one of their own, as Santa Rosa reportedly is considering, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said.

County officials said common violations include commercial establishments operating when they are supposed to be closed, gatherings involving people outside of households, and people who aren’t wearing facial coverings or social distancing when called for, all of which are believed to have contributed to increased transmission.

The county is rolling out a new tip line, 1-833-SAFE707, as well as two other means of reporting compliance issues. (See information box)

But despite some misgivings about spending scarce funds in an uncertain times, supervisors agreed to invest more than $143,000 for community outreach and education, much of it targeted toward the hard-hit Latino community which has accounted for as many as three-quarters of all COVID-19 cases while accounting for a little over a quarter of the county population.

That disparate rate of infection is largely as a result of of socioeconomic factors that include overcrowded housing and low-paying, frontline jobs that make it difficult for people to stay at home, experts say.

During an extended period of public comment Thursday, dozens of people expressed opposition to the new civil fines, voicing concern that people of color would bear the brunt of enforcement efforts and that burdensome penalties would be visited in abundance upon members of the public at a time many people are least able to pay, due to the economic shock caused by the pandemic.

In a reflection of the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and calls for deeper police reforms, many also assailed what they understood as an effort to give greater powers to authorities, including law enforcement officers, a sentiment echoed widely.

“I’m really concerned about the issue of enforcement, when you’re talking about immigrant and community members who are already living and have a lot of fear related to law enforcement and immigration enforcement,” said Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center. ”I also want to recognize there is a tremendous need for additional outreach and education in the immigrant community.“

Others lambasted Sheriff Mark Essick, who endured significant backlash for briefly deciding in May that he and his department would not enforce provisions of the local shelter-in-place order that he deemed unnecessary, given containment of the infection rate at that point, or that he claimed were arbitrary and misguided.

New Sonoma County coronavirus compliance tip lines

Phone: 1-833-SAFE707 (1-833-723-3707)

Email: safe707@sonoma-county.org

Online: https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Services/SoCo-Report-It/Submit-a-Service-Request

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Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Essick, “has proven himself completely untrustworthy as far as taking directions on public health matters,” said a woman whose name was not immediately available due to the online format used for supervisors’ meetings.

Essick was in attendance earlier at the noon meeting and told supervisors that his department had logged and resolved the public complaints it has received on non-compliance with health orders. The Sheriff’s Office, which handles law enforcement in unincorporated Sonoma County, by late last month had fielded more than 760 reports of alleged health order violations but had issued few citations, favoring education.

State law already defines any violation of a public health order, including failure to wear face coverings when warranted, as a misdemeanor.

Supervisors, in response to the concerns raised, reinforced their intention to use the ordinance to encourage compliance rather than force it at first.

“We have said emphatically and repeatedly it is not our intent to enforce and levy fines but to educate and outreach to the entire community,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair. “It doesn’t matter who they are. Facial coverings are important, safe business openings are important, if we all want to reopen our economy and protect our public health.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins also noted that her interest in civil enforcement arose from a town hall meeting she and Gorin co-hosted for members of the local workforce in which Hopkins said they heard “a tremendous amount of fear around unsafe working conditions.”

Attendees at the town hall were “expressing fear and expressing powerlessness about their ability to protect their own health,” Gorin said.

The new county tipline offers employees an opportunity to seek help in settings where employers are not properly enforcing safety protocols, for instance, and provides a softer, less expensive alternative to the misdemeanor penalties of up to $500 already written into state law, both supervisors said.

“The goal is to take it out of the sheriff’s hands,” Hopkins said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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