Sonoma County sheriff won’t change course, backing away from deal to continue enforcement of health order
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick doubled down Friday on his stunning announcement a day before that his deputies would stop enforcing Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase’s public health order, a move likely to thrust the county into an explosive national debate about limits on liberty and economic activity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Essick, who publicly complained that he’d been sidelined in key decisions and ignored by county supervisors and top administrators, confirmed his stance Friday evening, roughly 24 hours after his sudden statement, posted on social media, that he was pulling his deputies back from any enforcement of Mase’s health order. The move caught county supervisors and peers in law enforcement by surprise, and none came forward publicly to voice support in its wake.
Instead, the county’s top elected leaders and health authorities were drawn into a hastily arranged online meeting Friday morning where many thought they had secured a deal with Essick - one they intended to announce as a group in the afternoon, according to several officials at the meeting.
But that announcement never came, and Essick was said to have changed his mind several times throughout the afternoon, forging agreements in one phone call with fellow county leaders, and abruptly changing his position in the aftermath.
Then, in a 5 p.m. interview, he said his stance from Thursday would not change - that come Monday, his deputies would only educate the public about the local health order, but not enforce it. Speaking with emotion, Essick said he felt the county was “trading lives for lives at this point. All around me I see crushed families, crushed relationships, a crushed economy.”
“I’m not following this f--king health order, 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,” Essick said.
The sheriff said his deputies will continue educating residents about the health order and guidance to wear masks in public, wash hands and keep a distance of 6 feet from others. But he stuck by his original demand: that the health department needed to provide more data and collaboration before he would commit to enforcing Mase’s order, saying he was elected as sheriff “to defend the people of this county.”
He did not, however, inform fellow elected leaders he was persisting in his stand, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. They voiced shock Essick had backed away from his promise earlier in the day to withdraw his “non-enforcement threat.”
“This community has been through so much over the past 2½ years - multiple devastating wildfires and floods - and we’ve always come out stronger by working together,” McGuire said. “Cooler heads must prevail. There’s too much at stake for ego.”
County health officers have broad authority during health emergencies to sharply restrict activities and take measures to stem dangers to public health. Mase issued her first order in mid-March and has since followed a succession of state guidelines that have allowed her to loosen restrictions.
But with a recent increase in cases, hospitalizations and person-to-person transmission, Mase this week announced she would pause any further reopening for 14 days until she can be sure the county is not running headlong into a surge of illness that could overwhelm its medical resources.
Just last week, the county published demographic data showing the virus was disproportionately affecting Latino residents, who represent 27% of the population but a startling 70% of reported cases of COVID-19. That was another point of concern in addition to outbreaks at some workplaces, Mase said.
But Essick pointed to the low rate of illness in Sonoma County, where only 2% of the 25,258 tests for COVID-19 have resulted in positive diagnoses. The public health department reported 322 active cases as of Friday night, including 10 people hospitalized with the disease.
Essick said Mase’s rules have in some cases seemed arbitrary and difficult for his deputies to defend, such as permitting patio dining but not outdoor church services.
Essick, a 26-year department veteran who was first elected sheriff two years ago, rejected the idea that he is bristling at the power of an appointed public health officer. He said he respects Mase’s authority and wants to continue working with her.
But he said law enforcement should be included in policymaking talks for rules his agency is being asked to enforce.
He compared the unprecedented limits on civil liberties during the pandemic to the decision he made to evacuate nearly 200,000 people during the Kincade fire last year.