Sonoma County sheriff: Deputies will no longer enforce coronavirus public health order
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick announced Thursday his department will no longer enforce the county’s stay-at-home public health order restricting some business activity and civic life, taking a dramatic stand in opposition to local measures aimed to curb the coronavirus pandemic - measures that Essick said were out of step with state rules.
Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, he said, has not provided the data needed to defend her decision to keep restrictions on people’s civil liberties in place - ones that ask law enforcement officers to penalize what would otherwise be lawful behavior.
Essick’s decision triggered a staunch rebuke from county leaders - from county supervisors to the district attorney - even as it appeared to tap into widespread frustration over restrictions that have halted commerce, deepening what Gov. Gavin Newsom called a “pandemic-induced recession.” Nearly 4 million Californians filed jobless claims in March and April.
Effective Monday, deputies will be ordered to weigh reports of violations against state guidelines and “use public interactions as an opportunity to educate people on how to mitigate the risk and spread of the COVID-19 infection,” he wrote. Jail staff will no longer book people arrested by any agency when the sole charge is a violation of the county’s public health order.
“The curve has been flattened; hospitals were not overrun with patients; we have dramatically increased testing which verified the infection rate in Sonoma County is under control and decreasing,” Essick said in a statement posted to social media Thursday afternoon. “Yet we continue to see successive public health orders that contain inconsistent restrictions on business and personal activities without explanation.”
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin assailed Essick’s public announcement as “tone deaf” and criticized him for failing to address his concerns with the health department. Gorin noted the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus among Latino residents - who represent 27% of the county population and 70% of COVID-19 cases - should be a call for concern and caution.
“The sheriff’s department is apparently not concerned about the public health of our community,” Gorin said.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said Essick’s decision “constitutes a dereliction of duty.” She said that while the public health rules may not seem to move rapidly enough for some, the way to address those concerns is to “engage in robust conversation about the rules.
“Instead, he is promoting lawlessness throughout the unincorporated communities I represent,” Hopkins said.
Gorin said she would call on Essick, a fellow elected official, to appear before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to explain his position and so she and her counterparts on the board can question him.
Essick’s announcement came one day after county supervisors roundly gave public support for Mase’s decision this week to pause the county’s reopening for up to 14 days after reporting several alarming trends: a recent rise in local COVID-19 cases, increased person-to-person transmission of the contagion and a spike in hospitalizations, which she characterized as “red flags.”
Newsom has issued a series of new guidelines in recent weeks allowing for more activities, from barber shops to church services, to resume in counties that meet certain criteria. But he has left it up to county health officers to set local rules and keep restrictions in place depending on regional factors like transmission rates and public health preparedness.
Overall, the case rate in Sonoma County is low with only 2.3% of the 23,362 tests returning positive results for COVID-19 since testing began in March. But new cases have doubled over the last two weeks, and there have been recent outbreaks of illness at a manufacturing plant, among groups of farmworkers and at a local elderly residential care facility, according to Mase.
No other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County has so far followed Essick’s lead.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said the city will continue to support Mase, “who is the subject matter expert, leading a safe, strategic, and data-driven process for reopening.”
“While the governor has set statewide guidance and a phased approach to reopening, he also has made it abundantly clear that the local health officer is empowered to establish their own thresholds and requirements,” Navarro said.
Both Healdsburg and Petaluma police departments responded to the sheriff’s announcement by reaffirming on social media their cities’ commitment to enforcing the public health order.