Sonoma County considering fines on people, businesses violating coronavirus rules

The plan would establish a hotline where callers can report people and businesses that are not following the rules.|

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Stepping up efforts to enforce local and state health orders, Sonoma County supervisors on Thursday will consider imposing new fines on businesses and individuals who flout rules designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The enforcement plan, devised by county staff, would establish a central hotline where callers can report people and businesses that are not following the rules. Violators would face civil fines of $100 for individuals and $1,000 for businesses.

At the center of the plan is a bilingual public information campaign to educate people about how health measures like facial coverings help slow transmission of the virus.

The ideas come amid a stubborn increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that led to a second wave of business shutdowns this month and decisions not to reopen K-12 school campuses for classroom instruction next month.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has been an outspoken proponent of greater enforcement, said the proposal does not go far enough and costs too much. She criticized a lack of data backing up the strategies.

“I think you deserve more than a $100 fine if you’re going to take my life and other people’s lives in your hands,” Zane said.

The proposal, an emergency ordinance, would be effective in both unincorporated areas and the county’s nine cities, providing a common set of rules. But it would not mandate how cities enforce health order violations.

The plan could cost the county up to $526,800 to implement, including as much as $126,000 for media campaigns and up to $450,000 to staff the hotline and hire additional code enforcement staff.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the fine amounts are merely a starting point for Thursday’s discussion and she believes civil penalties will be an effective tool, much like traffic tickets already proven to help stem speeding.

Other nearby counties have adopted far steeper fines. Most recently, Marin County adopted a graduated fine structure not to exceed $500 for individuals and $10,000 for businesses.

In the proposal, county staff recommended flat penalty amounts “in order to remove discretion as to the amount from the issuer that could lead to a disparate financial impact.”

Mase, in an interview Wednesday, said she is also considering whether to introduce even stricter rules on social gatherings, which are currently limited to 12 people.

Mase said she will present details to the board Thursday on what’s known about recent outbreaks, which public health workers have traced back to skilled nursing facilities for the elderly as well as social gatherings.

Several local law enforcement leaders said they support the proposal, especially if it can broaden the types of agencies addressing public health violations beyond police.

“We think the whole idea is a good idea, giving another layer of enforcement to the health order and bringing in other resources,” Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle said.

Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano said civil fines are demonstrably effective when it comes to business compliance.

“This is another way for us to hopefully motivate folks to be safe and to comply with the science and the health orders,” Savano said.

Savano, current president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, said the group supports the outlines of the proposal. They are also meeting Thursday and will discuss the measures further.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said he supports adding civil code enforcement to the criminal enforcement of the public health rules currently available to address violations.

Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin did not share the same kind of criticism of the plan as Zane. She believes public education will be the most important piece of the strategy.

“We need to instill in people why facial coverings are important, social distancing is important,” Gorin said. “If we ever want to get a handle on the pandemic to open safely, we have to get serious about our public health. That means respecting the rules.”

Called “Safe Sonoma Summer,” the proposed campaign would involve promoting the new civil penalties and the science behind public health rules like facial coverings.

The messages, in English and Spanish, would be provided on social media, broadcast on radio and published in print, in addition to information campaigns at important public hubs like grocery stores.

The telephone hotline would be staffed by bilingual call takers who would take in complaints and forward them to the appropriate local agency for follow up, such as a local police department.

In addition to the fines, the ordinance would also allow the county counsel’s office to file a lawsuit against an entity violating the public health order without having to get approval from supervisors.

The county would create a specialized code enforcement team including code enforcement inspectors, an environmental health specialist and other staff able to field complaints and educate potential violators.

Gorin said the plan must focus on getting people to understand why the rules exist because there is simply no way to hire enough inspectors to shut down every house party.

“I’m sure we’ll come at it from different perspectives,” Gorin said of her fellow supervisors. “What we will agree on is our community needs to get serious.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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