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Sonoma County sheriff to cease enforcing county coronavirus order Monday

Beginning Monday, Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies will no longer enforce the local health order meant to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, setting up potential conflicts between residents and businesses in cities and those in unincorporated areas of the county.

Sheriff Mark Essick, after back-and-forth-and-back-again announcements last week, set today as the first day his deputies will cease enforcing the shelter-in-place order issued by Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase.

Essick said he believes the requirements in the order are inconsistent and that Mase has not provided the evidence or transparency he wants. He said the Sheriff’s Office will abide by the state order instead.

The decision - which caught other law enforcement leaders and political leaders by surprise - has sown confusion and anger.

In Sonoma and Windsor, the cities’ police departments are composed of sheriff’s deputies with a sheriff’s lieutenant as the chief. Following Essick’s decision, both cities’ chiefs published letters to their communities explaining how the orders would be enforced there, given that they are under the Sheriff’s Office umbrella.

The letters, nearly copies of each other, appear to support existing enforcement efforts and not the tactic taken by Essick.

“We will continue to educate and inform our community of the health and safety guidelines, to include social distancing, facial coverings and other safety mitigation measures that are in place,” Windsor Chief Ruben Martinez said in his letter. “We will continue to respond to calls for service regarding the health order on a case by case basis. Our foremost priority is the safety of our community and that will not change.”

The letter never states outright the department will enforce the county order. Instead, Martinez asks for voluntary compliance: “We continue to ask our community to work together, have patience and comply with the guidelines set by County of Sonoma Public Health.”

Sonoma Chief Orlando Rodriguez was less specific in his letter, asking residents to “comply with the guidelines that were set in place for your safety” but not specifically the county order.

Essick has argued that he will abide by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place rules, not Sonoma County’s. He did not respond to a message seeking comment Sunday.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia would not make Martinez or Rodriguez available to clarify their letters Sunday. But he said “they will be enforcing the county health order.”

Political leaders in both Windsor and Sonoma said they expect their officers to enforce the county health rules.

“It’s my understanding we’ve gone through the order and our contract (with the Sheriff’s Office), and we do have purview on enforcement and how our department will operate,” said Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey.

Windsor Councilmember Deb Fudge said the final line in Martinez’s letter seeking compliance indicates Windsor police will enforce the county rules.

“That was specifically put in there because Essick is following state guidelines. We’re following the county order,” she said. “The Windsor police chief’s supervisor is the town manager. We’re not the sheriff’s department. They may be deputies but they are assigned to the town.”

Both Harvey and Fudge worried that Essick’s refusal to enforce the county health order in unincorporated areas might embolden businesses to open prematurely or encourage residents to abandon social distancing and mask-?wearing, sparking another wave of infectious spread.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some do,” Fudge said. “Then people in the city will get upset and say it’s not fair. But the people I’m talking to understand the repercussions of recurrence. They don’t want to be shut down again. They are partway open now, they don’t want to go backward.”

Harvey said some people in more rural areas have already begun wearing facial coverings less frequently.

“We’re hearing of a lot less people wearing masks and people being rude to others who are,” he said. “It’s emboldened some people in the valley. … The increase in noncompliance is a concern.”

Harvey had harsh words for Essick and the misunderstandings his decision-?making process has caused.

“What’s hilarious to me is, this was all started because of his confusion, when these actions have caused even more confusion,” he said. “For a public leader to explode in this way - he’s not claiming any Constitutional issues, he’s not claiming any economic issues - he’s only claiming he’s frustrated and he was disrespected. It’s odd.”

Harvey said Sonoma residents have largely complied with the county rules, as Fudge said Windsor residents have.

“We have a community that’s been very confused, very upset and is unsure what’s going to happen with regard to their health,” Harvey said.

Harvey said in practicality, Sonoma police haven’t enforced the orders anyway. That’s been the job of city code enforcement officers, who are more interested in gaining voluntary compliance than citing businesses that might be violating part of the order.

“First, it’s education, second education, third education. Then potentially cite. I don’t think it will really affect many businesses,” he said.

“But the sheriff would not accept that arrest, anyway, he’s said. Speeding is really hard to enforce, so I guess by his logic, we should not enforce those laws anymore. Do we really need stop signs at 3 a.m.?”

Essick, who didn’t return messages seeking comment Sunday, appears to be alone in his decision among Sonoma County law enforcement leaders. Since last week, virtually every other leader has reiterated support for Mase and her expertise in determining when it is safe to further relax business closures and restrictions on public gatherings.

His declaration prompted responses for other agencies, including Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Healdsburg and other cities as to their intention to continue enforcing social distancing, rules on facial coverings in public, bans on public gatherings and closures of non-essential businesses.

The county had been moving toward reopening until health officials found worrisome trends, including a doubling of new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks. Just last week, the county had allowed restaurants, wineries and brewpubs that serve food to resume outdoor dining as long as public health protocols were followed.

But the new numbers prompted Mase to call for a two-week pause on additional relaxation of the stay-at-home order she initially imposed in mid-March.

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