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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.

In an interview, Essick said his decision was rooted in the realities his deputies are facing in the community. So far, the Sheriff’s Office has responded to 29 reports of public health order violations, resulting in 13 citations and 19 warnings.

He criticized the arbitrary nature of some of the public health rules. He described a situation where a couple from San Francisco had rented a house at the coast to shelter with their preschool-aged child. A neighbor complained and a deputy had to tell them to leave because of the public health order. Essick said he felt the rules unfairly penalized people for doing nothing more than make personal decisions for their families.

“It’s OK to eat lunch on a patio, but it’s not OK to hold a church service outside?” Essick said.

He criticized Mase and the health department for withholding key information that might help the public understand the current status of the virus here, such as how many of the active cases represent seriously sick people, the number of current hospitalizations and patients requiring ventilators. The health department has repeatedly declined to reveal that data, citing patient privacy rules.

“I respect the hell out of (Mase), I think she’s incredibly smart, I think she has the right education and is the right person for the job - but she’s made some critical mistakes and I have to call those out,” Essick said.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she supports Mase, “who is evaluating the data in our county, not simply looking at statewide trends.”

“I want to be clear that I stand with science and I stand with keeping people safe,” Ravitch said.

The restrictions pose “a challenge to all of us, but to tell those who are giving up so much to follow the rules that they won’t be enforced against their neighbors who disregard them is not the message we need right now,” Ravitch said in an email.

Some health care professionals were horrified by the sheriff’s decision because they say the county is not ready to reopen for a variety of reasons, and the testing data is only one benchmark out of many that must be considered.

Jenny Fish, a family medicine doctor who helped found the local health care advocacy group called H-PEACE, or Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment, and four other members of the group’s leadership discussed the sheriff’s decision on a late night Zoom call Thursday.

“Our community is not yet safe, so for the sheriff to make a public statement to undermine our public health officer, who is a professional with a solid background and has made really amazing decisions to protect our community is irresponsible,” Fish said. “It’s because of her that we haven’t had a huge spike in cases.”

Supervisors David Rabbitt and James Gore could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane called Essick’s announcement “very unfortunate.” While she hasn’t agreed with everything Mase has done, Zane said she’s been “deeply impressed” with Mase’s work and has?found her to be very transparent with the community.

Some of the county orders may be ambiguous, but that’s because these are difficult calls to make, Zane said.

“This is a really important time for us to be standing together in unity as elected officials,” Zane said. “There’s no clear pathway on this. We’re doing the best we can.”

Staff writers Chantelle Lee and Will Schmitt contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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