October 22, 2020

Slow start to Sonoma County health order enforcement

Each day since Sonoma County opened a tip line for health order violations in early August, about 18 people on average have called or emailed with complaints about big gatherings in parks, people not wearing masks, businesses letting people inside through back doors and others flouting the rules aimed at stemming the spread of the highly contagious and dangerous new coronavirus.

Among more than a dozen agencies able to issue civil penalties for disobeying health orders, Petaluma and Rohnert Park have issued fines, county officials said. County code enforcement officers, however, have not yet issued any civil citations so far.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has also not handed out any health order citations, not even to the hosts of a rowdy party at a vacation rental in El Verano last weekend that drew neighborhood complaints and ended in gunfire that struck several homes and vehicles.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Wood said deputies visited the residence twice before dawn Sept. 19, once to warn people about the raucous music and activity and a second time to shut the party down.

The health order bars gatherings with people from outside one’s household, yet determining who is allowed to be with whom can be a complicated and time-consuming endeavor in the middle of the night, Wood said.

“You have to prove a violation. You have a big group of people, and you have to determine who is there, who lives there,” said Wood, who added that deputies had no lawful reason to enter the house.

The lack of action on the part of deputies to enforce health orders that night has raised the issue again about the effectiveness of the county’s plan for enforcing public health rules.

“Why aren’t we having a more unified front and issuing citations?” Supervisor Susan Gorin said.

The county’s hotline is checked during weekday business hours by the permit department’s code enforcement team. After hours, the tip line advises people to call law enforcement about immediate concerns.

Sheriff Mark Essick in late May said he would prohibit his deputies from issuing misdemeanor citations for violating health orders, saying the rules devised by county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase were more restrictive than state guidelines.

Within 48 hours, Essick backed down after reaching a compromise with Mase and other county leaders, saying his deputies would first try to convince individuals and businesses to comply with the rules and issue citations in more serious situations.

Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle said deputies have discretion to make decisions in the field, but they have been told they can and should enforce emergency public health orders aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19, especially in the case of repeat offenders.

“We’re still trying to do education first, and if that doesn’t work then we’re doing enforcement of the health order,” Naugle said.

Gorin said she agrees agencies should encourage residents to comply with the orders and issue citations judiciously — but the El Verano house party appears a prime example of a violation deserving a consequence.

Gorin said she has scheduled a conversation with Essick to ask him why this party didn’t result in a health order violation for partygoers flouting the rules.

“This is not arresting people and putting them in jail, this is issuing a citation and making them pay,” Gorin said.

Essick was on vacation last week and unavailable to comment.

Gorin said she has heard from local business owners of places like gyms eager to reopen that are frustrated they are losing money while following the rules, while flagrant violators of county health orders are allowed to hold parties without recourse.

She said she will consider bringing the discussion back to the Board of Supervisors about whether the hotline should be checked after business hours.

“I will raise this as an issue again because clearly my neighbors and my constituents think that calling dispatch is useless,” Gorin said.

The health orders require people wear masks in public within 6 feet of others and avoid gatherings with people outside one’s household. They include a variety of other rules for businesses to operate safely while the highly infectious pathogen remains without proven treatment, resulting in grave results for vulnerable populations falling ill.

Sonoma County District Attorney’s officials said they have filed charges in several misdemeanor health order violations since the county’s first health order was issued in March, but could not provide details Friday. Prosecutors are investigating additional reports from law enforcement agencies as well, officials said.

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