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Sonoma County grapples with how to enforce public health rules

Supervisors Thursday are scheduled to discuss new approaches to enforcement of pandemic rules. Late Sunday, the county added its latest COVID death, its 20th overall.|

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

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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.

Relying on law enforcement hit a setback in late May when Sheriff Mark Essick declared he would not enforce the county’s emergency health order halting much commercial and civic activity. Essick said he was concerned the local rules were too burdensome for businesses and that he believed Mase hadn’t effectively communicated with his department about her decisions.

His public rebuke of emergency health measures stirred up shared disgruntlement over the emergency measures — but it also brought sharp criticism from fellow elected officials who said he was undermining the authority of a key expert during an emergency. The controversy eventually resulted in a reconciliation between the Sheriff’s Office and the county health department, with Essick vowing his deputies would enforce the rules only after they first tried to educate people and convince them to comply.

At that point, the rules were relaxing, allowing people to visit local parks and most businesses to open their doors.

Then on July 12 and 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration issued back-to-back orders, both applying to Sonoma County, once again curtailing indoor dining, closing hair salons and shutting down certain indoor sectors viewed as riskier environments for the spread of the highly infectious pathogen.

He did so because of alarming trends with high rates of hospitalization and transmission of COVID-19.

Reinstating restrictions on businesses is widely viewed as an unfortunate yet needed step toward getting a handle on infection rates, but it is a painful one for people whose livelihoods have been battered since the pandemic first prompted local and statewide shutdowns in early March.

Sonoma County’s top law enforcement agency leaders, charged with responding to complaints and enforcing the public health orders, said they are focusing first on education to ensure business owners understand the rules.

“There’s a lot of frustration, which is totally understandable,” Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle said. “People felt like we were finally heading in the right direction and now we’re not. Our main goal is really helping people understand now what the new rules are before we enforce them.”

Naugle, speaking for the department as Essick was on vacation and unavailable, said that the Sheriff’s Office would respond to any complaints about health order violations by trying to get the business or individual to comply.

“We hope people will be reasonable and not put deputies in a position where they have to take action,” Naugle said.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said his department has received an uptick in calls from people reporting others without masks in public, businesses operating when they should be closed and other suspected violations.

“Any time there’s a change in restrictions on the health order, whether they’re loosening up or tightening up, there’s always going to be some confusion,” Navarro said. “And we’re seeing that now.”

Thursday’s board discussion is geared to provide a road map for the rest of the county to follow.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, the former police chief, said he wants the county and cities to coordinate enforcement strategies and put forward a united front in support of the health rules designed to protect the public from a dangerous surge in coronavirus infections.

The city’s school resource officer team, normally put back onto patrol during the summertime recess, is responding to reports of health order violations. The city also is discussing whether to involve code enforcement and other staff in order to share the work among departments.

“We create a different staffing model where we have street outreach workers,” Schwedhelm said.

Some residents are eager for county and city agencies to bring a tougher stance on health violations.

From her riverfront home in Monte Rio, Meghan Long said she watches in horror at revelers flock to her Russian River town and its beaches. They congregate in groups, often without masks.

“We can’t even go enjoy our dock because the river is so packed. People aren’t respectful, there are no boundaries,” said Long, 38.

Long said she’s called the parks and sheriff’s departments but the crowds at Monte Rio beach persist. She no longer lets her 8-year-old son walk around their neighborhood because of the people milling about.

“They need to shut the beaches down,” Long said. “That’s the only way they’re going to slow the spread.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. 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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