Sonoma County grapples with how to enforce public health rules
The next several weeks and months will prove crucial to Sonoma County’s battle against a rising tide of coronavirus infections that have forced many local businesses again to shut down and schools to keep children away from campuses in the fall.
Giving teeth to the emergency public health rules governing individuals, employers and public-serving businesses is a crucial part of the county’s mission to slow the spread of the virus. The issue is spurring public debate about what role law enforcement and civil authorities must play in enforcing the rules and whether there are other avenues to ensure the public does its part.
Supervisors on Thursday are slated to discuss how ramped-up enforcement might take shape. So far, local law enforcement agencies have been tasked with enforcing the health order, mostly through warnings and some criminal misdemeanor citations. But other options are on the table, such as involving code enforcement and environmental health staff for civil violations.
“This is about life and death,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “How do we change this? We’re on a very dangerous trajectory right now.”
The discussion comes as the number of people known to have COVID-19 in the county has doubled in the past three weeks, reaching 2,169 cases late Sunday night, when the county reported the latest local death, the 20th of the pandemic. No details were available about that case.
Two neighboring counties, Napa and Mendocino, have been quicker to put forward their framework for enforcement of pandemic rules.
In Napa, supervisors approved penalties last week for unlawful gatherings, failure to wear a face covering in public, when required, or operating a business without pandemic precautions. Fines for commercial activity violations may run as high as $5,000 and for noncommercial as high as $500, according to the ordinance.
Mendocino County supervisors, meanwhile, approved an ordinance earlier this month allowing designated county personnel to cite residents for failure to wear a facial covering, with fines of $100, $200 and $500, for first, second and third offenses, respectively.
Zane said now is the time for Sonoma County to take a strong and public stance to enforcing its rules. The county must “do it in a way that people realize we mean business,” Zane said.
Policing individuals’ adherence to health orders requiring facial coverings and limiting gatherings fewer than 12 people can be less clear-cut than ensuring businesses are following the rules.
Yet social gatherings have been one of the factors spreading the disease, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said. Health authorities have linked recent COVID-19 outbreaks to summertime holiday gatherings, religious ceremonies and at least one funeral.
Mase said she encourages stepped up enforcement of the health order to help stem the rise in cases, including responding to social gatherings.
“I think first and foremost, if we know of any mass gatherings happening that are in the public arena — something that’s planned, that’s happening — we should send law enforcement out to shut it down,” Mase said. “If we know a public business is open that shouldn’t be open, we should send law enforcement out to shut it down, whether it’s a restaurant, a nail salon, a barbershop, whatever it is.”
Supervisor David Rabbitt said he wants the county to develop a program that starts with education and warnings and can be “ratcheted up” as needed. Rabbitt said that individual behavior will be key to slowing the spread of the virus in the community, and the county should focus on helping people understand why they must wear masks, limit social gatherings and take other precautions.
“We can’t enforce birthday parties in backyards,” Rabbitt said. “I think enforcement is not going to get to the root of that problem. It’s convincing people it’s not a good idea to have a birthday party in the backyard.”
Since March, the Sheriff’s Office has issued 19 warnings and 14 citations for public health order violations, and only one of those cases emerged since June. Those were generally paired with other suspected criminal activity.
Santa Rosa police have issued 11 warnings and 32 citations. Of those misdemeanor citations, 23 were handed to Michael Bryant, a founder of the now-defunct Crossing the Jordan nonprofit thrift stores and shelters for people struggling with addictions, which openly defied the shut-down order, arguing the stores were critical to keeping its shelters open.
No criminal charges have been filed against Bryant, according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, where a spokesman said they are still reviewing the case.