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Sonoma County law enforcement not patrolling for COVID-19 curfew breakers

The Santa Rosa Police Department headquarters at 965 Sonoma Ave. in Santa Rosa, California on Friday, April 19, 2019. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

WILL SCHMITT, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

California’s revived coronavirus curfew won’t result in Sonoma County peace officers hassling people for going about their business after hours, though the order is likely to lead more people to report late-night social gatherings, especially as the holiday season dawns, local law enforcement chiefs said Friday.

The curfew takes effect Saturday night at 10 p.m. and is set to expire on Dec. 21. It bans “all gatherings with members of other households and all activities conducted outside the residence, lodging, or temporary accommodation with members of other households” between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., with limited exceptions for essential business, errands and travel.

The curfew applies to 94% of the state’s 40 million residents, taking in all counties like Sonoma that are in the state’s most restrictive tiers for reopening. It’s similar to the initial shelter-in-place order that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration imposed in the spring, though its impact is likely to be less dramatic.

“Discretion” was the word Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick heard repeatedly Thursday afternoon when state officials briefed dozens of California law enforcement chiefs shortly before the order became official.

“We’re not going to be out there pulling over every car and stopping every person who happens to be out in public between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 a.m.” Essick said, noting the curfew was unlikely to significantly change how his deputies conducted their patrol duties.

Likewise for Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro, who said his department would continue to focus on encouraging adherence to pandemic precautions through education.

“We’re not going to use the curfew as probable cause to stop anybody,” Navarro said. “We’re busy enough as it is. We’re not looking for curfew violations and we’re not looking for health order violations. But we do respond to complaints.”

The state curfew targets late-night gatherings, from house parties to small get-togethers, in order to prevent households from mixing and spreading COVID-19. It doesn’t specifically mention alcohol, but it is based on the evidence that drinking at such gatherings translates to “a higher likelihood of leading to reduced inhibition” and lower odds that everyone is wearing a mask and keeping their safe distance.

Several California sheriffs, including Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall, have said they will not enforce the new curfew.

Kendall announced his stance in a Facebook post Friday, explaining that his deputies wouldn’t be making compliance checks on businesses or individuals between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. if doing so would be “specifically due to these new curfew mandates.”

He did not offer an explanation for why his office wouldn’t enforce compliance with the curfew though he asked community members to do their part to stop the spread of the virus.

“I encourage the people of Mendocino County to stay vigilant and to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by following the rules established to keep you safe,” Kendall continued. “These would include the six feet of separation, masking, and washing of hands and using sanitizers when possible.”

Essick, who earlier this year publicly split with county health authorities and the Board of Supervisors, ordering his deputies to stand down from enforcing coronavirus rules before reversing himself, said he was not among the sheriffs rebelling against the curfew.

“That’s not the category that I’m in,” he said, adding that his deputies would work to reasonably enforce the governor’s intent to discourage late-night gathering per the text of the curfew order.

“There’s no surprises in there,” Essick said. He said his department, like others in the county, would receive guidance from county attorneys about how to approach curfew enforcement. “We’re just kind of digesting it.”

Essick and Navarro, who oversee the county’s largest law enforcement agencies, stressed that they expect to continue to seek voluntary compliance with pandemic rules, giving any violators notice before issuing citations.

But with infections and hospitalizations again on a sharp rise, and scrutiny of gatherings at a new level, the curfew is likely to lead to an increase in calls to authorities, local leaders said.

“I would anticipate more people calling, because they appreciate the severity of this,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, a retired police chief in the city.

As the region’s largest population center, Santa Rosa has been struggling to find new ways to help the county get out of the state’s most restrictive purple tier, Schwedhelm said.

“This has got to stop,” he said of the rising infection rates. “We cannot pretend that COVID-19 is not spreading.”

About 7.5% of current Sonoma County COVID-19 cases have been linked to gatherings, with that figure ranging from 5% to 14% over the course of the pandemic, according to county health data. But that’s likely an underestimate, said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer.

“Not everybody is giving us a very clear picture of what their risk factors are, what they’ve done,” Mase said Friday. “Many people don’t want to necessarily divulge that they’ve been to a social event or gathering.”

Navarro said the timing of the curfew was “pretty good from an educational piece” as it lands amid one of his department’s busy seasons. Santa Rosa police will be staffed up to prepare for an expected influx of calls on the weekends before and after Thanksgiving, as well as the Wednesday night before the holiday.

The curfew doesn’t prohibit people from leaving their homes — as long as they’re not en route to the type of gathering that would flout pandemic rules. It also does not apply to people who are homeless.

With the pandemic closures and restrictions already in place on many late-night establishments, including restaurants and bars, few Sonoma County businesses would seem to be affected by the curfew. One exception: casinos, which tend to operate around the clock.

But Essick said he had spoken about the curfew with Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which operates the Graton Resort and Casino, the largest gambling destination in the Bay Area and a sovereign business generally exempt from state and local laws.

According to Essick, Sarris said the tribe would do its part to curb the spread of the coronavirus, closing the casino and the resort’s restaurants overnight in keeping with the curfew.

“I applaud that,” Essick said. “As a sovereign nation, they don’t have to do that.”

Sarris did not respond to a request for comment Friday via email.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.