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Sonoma County supervisors express support for tougher coronavirus-related public health enforcement

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Sonoma County supervisors on Thursday signaled support for stiff fines and a marketing campaign to help induce residents to comply with public health rules top county health leaders say are key to curbing rampant spread of the coronavirus.

The proposed approach, which won’t be finalized until Board of Supervisors vote on a tougher enforcement measure Aug. 6, comes amid a resurging pandemic across the Bay Area. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all at a high mark.

And virus-related fatalities in Sonoma County keep climbing, as health officials reported late Thursday night two more residents of skilled nursing homes died in the last 24 hours, raising the county’s pandemic death toll to 24 people.

The latest deaths are a man and a woman, and both were over 65 with underlying health conditions, said Rohish Lal, a spokesman for the county Department of Health Services. The woman died at a local hospital, while the man died at the nursing home where he had lived. So far this week the virus has claimed five lives.

Since June 28, 19 people have died in the county from COVID-19 and fresh cases have more than doubled, as the virus rages through the community.

Meanwhile, borrowing ideas from surrounding counties, Sonoma County leaders are considering setting up a dedicated citizen complaint telephone line and the possibility of citations of $100 for individual violators of public health orders and up to $10,000 fines for the most egregious violations by big businesses.

The price tag to bolster enforcement, including a $126,000 media campaign, could top a half million dollars, but Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the county must do something more to ensure compliance with her public health orders.

“Of course, the impact of any of these (health orders) depends entirely on how we as a community respond,” Mase said Thursday, during the board’s special meeting.

If approved, Sonoma County would join Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Yolo counties, which have instituted civil citation programs meant to supplement law enforcement responses to complaints related to public health orders, including social distancing and mask requirements.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has fielded 767 such complaints, but deputies rarely have written tickets months into the pandemic, preferring to treat most first-time violators as an opportunity for education. As it stands now, residents and business operators could be fined up to $1,000 and face up to 6 months in jail for violating public health orders related to the coronavirus.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, although supportive of directing county staff to come back to the board in a few weeks with an enforcement ordinance to consider, said he wanted to see more information about how the Sheriff’s Office is handling the public complaints about people flouting public health directives.

“Before we spend money, are there complaints going unanswered? Are there delays in getting out to people right now,” Rabbitt said, referring to calls residents have placed to the office of Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.

County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, who suggested more information to that end could be brought to supervisors Aug. 6, said she’s confident the establishment of a phone complaint line alone would yield a lot more calls than the county sheriff gets now.

“Talking with some other counties, they get a lot of calls,” Bratton said. “I think the complaints will go up markedly.”

All of Sonoma County law enforcement agencies support a stronger county enforcement ordinance, and the county’s nine cities also agreed to a countywide approach that could bring consistency for residents in terms of expectations and consequences for noncompliance, county officials said.

As laid out Thursday, the new county effort would look more like traditional code enforcement and rely on citizen complaints. It would save law enforcement intervention for last resort situations.

County staff would have the authority to issue citations that for businesses would be on a sliding scale from $500 to $10,000. That range is 10 times greater than initially proposed by staff, but Rabbitt said he thought it was important to strike fear into businesses that might otherwise consider the fines “the cost of doing business.” His fellow supervisors agreed.

“If you say ‘up to $10,000,’ that would make people think twice,” Rabbitt said. “At the end of the day, it’s about putting the fear of God in somebody.”

The enhanced enforcement approach would be complaint-based, similar to the way public health order violations are reported today. Complaints would be funneled through a phone hotline with bilingual staff answering calls.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county agency that oversees code enforcement, said his office would need five more employees, and would become the central hub for collecting data on public health violations.

The ordinance, if approved, also would allow the county counsel’s office to file a lawsuit against an entity violating the public health order without having to get approval from supervisors. The county has brought just one such suit to date, against the nonprofit Crossing the Jordan. The nonprofit shut down permanently following nearly two dozen citations for failing to comply with county public health directives.

There’s no guarantee of board approval come Aug. 6, though. And even with a “yes” vote then, supervisors on Thursday expressed interest in a nuanced approach to achieving public compliance with Mase’s orders around curtailing virus transmission.

One piece of that approach likely would come from the county’s new communications department, which had plans to launch a media campaign called “Safe Sonoma Summer,” and now has offered to bolster the campaign with specific messaging about new COVID-19-related enforcement rules.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, touting Sebastopol’s example, suggested sending “strike teams” of county staffers out to downtown areas of cities, including unincorporated towns, to remind people of the face covering mandate and hand out masks. And give people already complying with public health orders coupons to local businesses.

“I think the more we can be proactive, the better off we’ll be,” Hopkins said. “Complaints are a moment in time, and then they’re gone.”

To be sure, the county’s plan to beef up enforcement has become a priority amid a marked increase in cases of the infectious disease, particularly those resulting from social gatherings where Mase said it takes just 15 minutes for person carrying COVID-19 to infect another.

In the past three to four weeks, Mase said, a time during which cases have doubled to 2,300, “a good chunk” of the county’s new cases have come due to transmission during social gatherings and inside senior living sites. The increasing infections have brought a wave of deaths in skilled nursing facilities, which now have reached 18 of the county’s 24 total coronavirus-related deaths since March.

The resurgent virus locally has led to a rollback of business operations, and a state ban on in-person classes for kindergarten through grade 12 students in the fall for counties, like Sonoma, on the state’s watchlist of areas struggling most to contain the virus.

Mase said she’s confident Sonoma County residents and businesses can reverse the trend and tamp down the virus, much like spring when the county flattened the curve of cases.

“If everybody were wearing facial coverings, performing physical or social distancing … and if all businesses are enforcing these things — if these things were happening — we’d be in a much better place,” Mase said.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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