Sonoma County emergency management director disregards coronavirus shelter-in-place order, takes family to beach
Sonoma County's top emergency management official enjoyed a family road trip to the beach despite a strict shelter-in-place order that has closed Sonoma County parks, beaches and open spaces in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Chris Godley, the director of Emergency Management and leader of the county's Emergency Operation Center, said he regrets the Saturday trip to the Sonoma County coast, which came to light after photos of the family trip were posted on Facebook.
“I own this,” said Godley, who has been with the county for two years. “It was a day off for my family. Any reasoning or justification is going to sound thin.”
In photos a source shared with The Press Democrat, Godley and his family appear to enjoy an otherwise abandoned, unnamed beach.
“Road tripping up the coast. Beautiful drive and nice views. Family beach time together. Grateful for fresh air and the ocean,” the post reads.
The shelter-in-place order, which took effect at 12:01 a.m. March 18, limits operation of all but the most essential business, and prohibits travel for all but essential employees or residents making essential trips. In strengthening the order by closing parks and open spaces March 23 after large weekend crowds swarmed the Sonoma Coast, county Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase singled out trips to the beach as specifically problematic. Her order shuttered all parks in the county, including state parks and beaches.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district encompasses the county's coastline, was dismayed by Godley's trip to the coast.
“I'm extremely disappointed,” she said. “In county government, we need to lead by example. We can't possibly expect the community to hold themselves accountable if we don't hold ourselves accountable as well.”
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said it was a learning experience, adding that it was time to move on.
Godley's trip comes as area law enforcement agencies have pledged to step up enforcement. On Friday, Rohnert Park Public Safety Chief Tim Mattos announced officers would begin issuing warnings or citations to nonessential businesses that remain open or to people found loitering in parks and closed shopping centers.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has issued one citation, but it was related to a theft at a Cloverdale business. No businesses have been cited by the Sheriff's Office, spokesman Juan Valencia said in a text message Sunday.
Supervisor David Rabbitt defended Godley on Sunday, saying very few people can do what Godley does. He called for more lax rules for people like Godley and health care professionals.
“If this was the doctor, in the midst of a battle for six days, and had one day off with family, would it be a sin?” Rabbitt said. “Would that be a story? Or is it only a story for Chris Godley who works for the county?”
Rabbitt said he wondered if Godley's decision warranted a news story, saying “it makes for a splashy headline.”
He said “the usual suspects” will be upset, but asserted that a news story about the matter wouldn't be good for the general public “at this time and place.”
“I want my top people who are responding to this crisis to be of sound mind, body and health,” Rabbitt said. “And if that means going to the coast to feel better, I'm all for it.”
The excursion drew widespread condemnation from residents on social media. Sebastopol resident Eliza Hemenway disagrees with the decision to close off access to parks in the county, but said the same rules should apply to everyone.
“If you are going to close the parks to all of us, there is no special treatment for government officials because their jobs are hard,” she said on Facebook. “I imagine being a stay-at-home mom with small kids, homeschooling and having no respite is also hard. So please, open our parks back up.”
Godley has earned high praise in his time with the county, guiding it through the aftermath of the deadly 2017 firestorm, the early 2019 floods and the Kincade fire, which in late 2019 became the county's largest, all while honing the county's emergency response and messaging infrastructure.
“He does an excellent job,” said County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, Godley's boss. “He is the consummate professional and public servant. He and others are putting in excessively long hours at the EOC, and it's important that he and others get time off.”
That time off shouldn't, though, include prohibited trips to the beach, a directive Godley assured Bratton he would not flout going forward, she said in a Sunday phone interview.
“That's the conversation we had,” Bratton said. “I take him at his word.”
Godley, who is paid $165,000 a year, said he hasn't actually taken a vacation since starting with the county, but he did offer regret about his decision to go to the beach north of Jenner.
“It's certainly not what I want to model for my community at this time,” he said.
“I seek the understanding and mercy of my community. The opportunity to grant just a moment of freedom to my family - given that they rarely see me - is not a justification, but it's what was going through my mind at the time.”
The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at email@example.com.