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Sonoma County sheriff to resume enforcing health order after whirlwind negotiation

Reversing a position that put him at odds with public officials around Sonoma County, Sheriff Mark Essick agreed Monday to stand behind local restrictions on business operations and personal activities intended to curb the spread of coronavirus after a whirlwind weekend of negotiations that he said convinced him the county was now on the right path forward.

The sheriff said he and his deputies would enforce the current health order until June 8, to the limited degree that enforcement has been needed, with the understanding that county officials would work toward a more inclusive, balanced approach to reopening the economy than has been the case.

“I am now confident in the process moving forward, that we're going to move from an essential/non-essential stance to a risk-based approach, and that a risk-based approach will better align Sonoma County with the state guidelines,” he said.

Essick, a 26-year sheriff's office veteran, said he also understood “that medical decisions remain medical decisions, and that is something that I absolutely respect, but there's a broader need to evaluate the impacts on our communities.”

The sheriff's remarks came four days after his bombshell announcement that his department would no longer enforce the current order issued by Health Officer Sundari Mase, but prioritize educating the public, saying he could not support what he deemed unnecessary restrictions on personal freedom that were “crushing our community” economically and socially.

He also complained that Mase and the county health department had ignored repeated requests for more information - from him, the public and the media - about the rationale behind continued constraints on certain business and activity, given the county's success in keeping the coronavirus infection rate low.

But Monday, after “a lot of people working collaboratively on this through the weekend and certainly through most of today,” he said, he and Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin released a joint statement celebrating their commitment to a “transparent and open process” aimed at “facilitating a safe economy and society in the pandemic era.”

It came hours into the same day that Essick's original pledge - to pull his deputies back from enforcement of Mase's order and rely instead on the state's less restrictive measures - went into effect.

And it was announced on the eve of his much-anticipated Tuesday appearance before the Board of Supervisors, where most members in the past four days had rebuked his stand, calling it “tone deaf,” “reckless” and “a dereliction of duty.”

No other local law enforcement leaders came forward publicly to back him, and many vowed to support Mase and continue enforcing her health order.

But Essick and Gorin, in their statement and in interviews, sought to put that bitter and divisive pandemic moment behind them, saying the county was more dedicated to a “risk-based approach” to economic reopening that would allow more businesses to operate under safeguards rather than blanket bans on certain sectors.

Some county officials painted it as a milestone transition, while others, including Mase, indicated they felt a risk-based approach had been their objective all along.

“This is something we've been championing probably since the second week of the shutdown,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who, with fellow Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, is a liaison to the county business community.

He cited, for example, the fact that people continue to line up to shop inside Costco, Home Depot, Friedman Brothers and other stores, yet small local retailers still aren't permitted to sell goods beyond curbside.

“Where does that fit into a health risk perspective?” Rabbitt asked.

Hopkins said county economic officials have been hard at work with the business community on best practices that would allow people to reopen but do so safely.

“We all want to have a common vision for the county going forward,” said Hopkins, who among board members last week penned the most withering public critique of the sheriff's stance.

“At the root of it, we do share the priorities of keeping the community safe and healthy,” she said Monday.

The joint statement from Essick and Gorin came after a hastily arranged series of meetings last Friday with top county lawmakers and health authorities who failed to produce an accord with Essick - though one was at hand several times that day, according to several participants.

For Gorin, a seasoned local officeholder, it was a particularly confounding moment - an open political rift with the county's top law enforcement officer, a first-term elected official who was publicly questioning the veracity and basis for the health order that has governed local life since mid-March.

“As your elected Sheriff, I can no longer in good conscience continue to enforce Sonoma County Public Health Orders, without explanation, that criminalize otherwise lawful business and personal behavior,” he wrote in the initial statement posted to the sheriff's office Facebook page.

A day later, in an interview after the pair of meetings with lawmakers, he grew emotional and profane in describing the economic pain he saw resulting from the local shutdown: “I'm not following this f--king health order,” he said, “and my original statement that we're done on June 1 stands until Dr. Mase is able to provide me with enough information that we're on the right path.”

After the fallout, attempts to reach the sheriff for interviews over the weekend were unsuccessful as still more elected leaders lined up to criticize him.

But when he and Gorin did resurface on Monday, they did so apparently hand in hand.

Said Gorin, “I think taking a pause with the sheriff was good. … I think we got to a better place.”

Mase, in her regular Monday press briefing, had little to say about the episode, except that she saw “no difference” in how the county was planning to proceed.

“I think that we're in a good place now in terms of bidirectional communication,” she said.

Essick and his department's chief spokesman, Sgt. Juan Valencia, noted that there was significant support for the sheriff's action, clearly visible on social media and voiced by residents and business people throughout the county. They said the department has pursued education over enforcement since the first shelter-in-place order was issued almost 11 weeks ago anyway.

As of Friday, the department had issued or made 13 arrests or citations, always in conjunction with some other criminal offense, such as drug use, drugs sales or theft, for example.

The agency also had issued 19 warnings related to unauthorized construction earlier in the pandemic or rental of vacations homes, which remain prohibited under the order.

Essick and Valencia also emphasized that even if the department wasn't going to enforce the local health order, it still supported precautions like wearing masks, physical distancing and other measures supported by the state.

Essick's decision to part ways with Mase and the rest of the county last week followed her announcement last Tuesday that she would not be making any additional move to reopen the economy for at least two more weeks because of a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, as well as concerning clusters at several work places and a marked concentration of cases within the Latino community.

When Essick dropped his sudden announcement two days later, he said too many of the restrictions that remained in place seemed arbitrary, citing, for instance, rules that allowed people to dine on restaurant patios but not assemble outside for church.

Essick on Monday declined to address other complaints about communication. He said that Mase was among those he spoke with on Sunday.

“I really want to take a step moving forward,” he said. “This is a new week.”

Essick will be speaking to the Board of Supervisors during its regular COVID-19 update at 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, in part to show the public “that we are unified,” he said.

Also Tuesday, the board has scheduled a closed-door performance review for Mase, a late addition to the meeting made on Monday.

A similar review for County Administrator Sheryl Bratton was held Monday.

In Mase's case, Gorin described it as a routine evaluation commonly made early in a new employee's tenure, “to talk about how we move forward together as an employer and an employee.”

Mase, an infectious disease expert with experience at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization, joined the county as health officer on an interim basis at the beginning of March and was promoted into the full job two weeks later.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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