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Sonoma County law enforcement agencies ask for voluntary compliance of shelter-in-place orders

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Sonoma County law enforcement agencies are prioritizing education over enforcement of the local shelter-in-place order issued last week, mirroring an approach adopted throughout the state as communities learn to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

The county shelter-in-place order, which began one day before a similar statewide mandate initiated Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, lasts through April 7. Public health officials instructed people to stay home unless they are engaging in essential activities, ranging from picking up groceries to seeking medical attention and exercising outdoors, provided they maintain a safe distance from others.

It prevents restaurants from serving customers on site, though allows them to order food for pickup, delivery or drive-thru service. Most businesses are required to suspend operations for three weeks, except for a lengthy list of essential enterprises such as hospitals and grocery stores, which are exempted from the requirement.

Those who fail to comply with the rules laid out in the order could face a maximum of 90 days behind bars, a fine up to $1,000, or both for a misdemeanor under a California Health and Safety Code section that penalizes people who ignore orders from health officers.

A separate state health and safety code gives local sheriff’s and police departments the authority to enforce health mandates. Local agencies are hoping to forgo that route and will instead urge individuals to comply with the order voluntarily, said Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano, who also serves as the president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association. The group of local leaders have discussed how to best unify their strategies and public messaging in response to the shelter-in-place order, Savano said.

“We want to provide clear communication and expectations and make sure that the community is informed,” Savano said.

The approach is being adopted by law enforcement agencies throughout the state as residents are told to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, said Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association and chief of the Citrus Heights Police Department.

While criminals may try to take advantage of shelter-in-place orders by looting stores or committing other types of crimes, law enforcement officers understand most people violating the order are likely confused and worried about the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“Our objective is to educate our community as best as possible, to ask for voluntary compliance,” Lawrence said.

“Police chiefs want to use enforcement as an absolute last possible resort, though obviously we have the legal authority to do it.”

Law enforcement agencies throughout Sonoma County are referring reports of businesses ignoring the law to the county Department of Health Services, though law enforcement could step in if needed, Savano said.

Dark storefronts and relatively empty roads indicate Sonoma County residents are heeding the order.

Savano said he has not heard of anyone who didn’t comply with the county’s instructions after they were given more information about the restrictions, he added.

Police officers in Santa Rosa have also seen lighter traffic and a dip in calls for help since the county issued the shelter-in-place order, Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro said.

In a video shared on his department’s social media pages Wednesday, Navarro urged residents to follow the county’s order voluntarily.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, whose deputies patrol the county’s unincorporated land and the contract cities of Windsor and Sonoma, shared a similar video the day prior.

“It allows us to do the job that we should be doing, which is handling emergency calls for service, rather than getting wrapped up in a call about a business that’s open or a large group,” Navarro said.

Both Savano and Navarro, whose agencies are prioritizing crucial calls for help during the shelter-in-place order, urged people to dial 211 or use online county resources to find out more information about the virus, rather than relying on dispatchers for the publicly available information. Each one of those calls can take dispatchers several minutes to resolve, Navarro said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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