California Wine Country governments ponder getting tough on coronavirus regulations

With all nine Bay Area counties now qualifying for the California Department of Public Health’s coronavirus watchlist, North Bay counties are taking stronger measures to ensure compliance — raising concern over possible new business closures and restricted public activities if spiraling COVID-19 cases do not decline.

Judging that appeals to reason and voluntary adherence have largely failed, county supervisors are no longer making threats, they are starting to approve strict new overt enforcement policies.

These methods now include an email site the public can use to report violators in Marin County, to fines ranging from $25 for individuals and up to $5,000 for businesses disregarding health laws in Napa County. In Sonoma County, the Board of Supervisors is about to consider options it could take to ramp up enforcement.

Statewide, some 32 counties are on the state’s coronavirus monitoring list, accouting for 80% of the population. A county can be placed on the watchlist after three days of rising hospitalization rates, increasing community transmission or declining hospital capacity.

As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide reclosure of indoor dining, while also closing bars, zoos and museums on July 13. At the same time, most counties on the state’s watchlist had to shutter other indoor facilities: gyms, churches, hair salons, malls and offices with nonessential workers.

This setback came after Newsom said dine-in restaurants, retail stores, bars and religious institutions and gyms could reopen with modifications on July 12 in counties that met the state’s guidelines.

On-again, off-again rule changes have led to confusion, anxiety and frustration as businesses strive to chart a course through modified public health orders, causing some counties to consider more stringent penalties for noncompliance.

Marin County

A new email address (SIPViolaton@MarinCounty.org) has been established for citizens to use when reporting shelter-in-place order violations, according to Marin County’s public health officer Dr. Matt Willis.

He noted that since the beginning of July “the governor noted a remarkable statewide increase in violation incidents starting in watchlist counties — some of which may have resulted from the pace at which things opened.”

This email address is for reporting violations by businesses that are not enforcing social distancing and mask wearing, short-term rental providers’ operating without authorization, and individuals who are not wearing masks while walking on outdoor paths, according to Marin County Assistant Administrator Angela Nicholson.

She said since the SIP order was effective in March, the county has had the authority to fine people up to $1,000 per violation.

As of July 3, a state “strike team” can be sent in with considerable enforcement power since it includes representatives from regulatory departments such as the Bureau of Alcohol Beverage Control, which issues liquor licenses to bars and restaurants, and the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. This team cited 54 businesses statewide in its first two days of its focus on watchlist counties.

“(F)ines and polices like these are hard to enforce,” said Joanne Webster, president and CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. “I believe that rather than have the county police the business community, self-enforcement is the better way to go, especially since only about 2% of firms may be noncompliant. A majority of businesses are safe. It is not a good use of public resources for law enforcement to engage in this.”

She urged focusing on contact tracing and identifying and isolating industries that may be in violation, while making testing widely available and offering a mobile option to bring COVID-19 testing into the workplace.

“Charging upwards of $100 per test and having a system where people inform on one another is ridiculous,” Webster said.

Napa County

By unanimous vote, the Napa County Board of Supervisors on July 14 approved a plan that fines those holding gatherings and not obeying other health laws. Those citations for violating COVID-19 orders can have fines of $25–$500 for individuals and $200 to $5,000 for businesses.

A county press release said city leaders from Napa, American Canyon, Yountville, Calistoga and St. Helena support this new law.

David Morrison, planning, building and environmental services director, said Napa County’s focus and effort will continue to be education. He cautioned that this new power should not trigger a ticket-writing flurry as a first response.

For example, if someone is holding a large backyard gathering that is illegal under county COVID-19 health laws, an enforcement officer would go to the home, explain the law and why it exists and warn the homeowner that a citation could be a penalty for future violations.

Concerns about bilingual communication were raised by Supervisors Belia Ramos and Alfredo Pedroza. They suggested a prerecorded Spanish message when a bilingual county staff member is not available could help ensure there are no barriers to educating and understanding the law before proceeding to enforcement.

Issuing a warning notice of violation is the first step, followed by a citation and fine if the situation remains unchanged. Officers have the latitude to bypass the warning and go directly to a citation if they believe it is warranted.

Board of supervisors Chair Diane Dillion said California has made it clear that communities must do COVID-19-related enforcement.

Organizations now closed a second time need to prepare for it being this way into August.

“It could be three weeks before fitness centers, worship services, barber shops, hair salons and other personal care services and offices for nonessential sectors can reopen,” said Dr. Karen Relucio, Napa County health officer. “It could be longer.”

Sonoma County

While no Sonoma County fines or other penalties have been announced to date, board of supervisors Chair Susan Gorin said on July 15 that it is clear what options county staff might bring to the board for discussion at the July 23 meeting.

“We may be discussing enforcement, but I’m not sure we are considering stringent enforcement. We are exploring options. The question of who might be used as enforcers is open for discussion,” Supervisor Gorin said.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she thinks additional measures “would be helpful” and that she would welcome having local law enforcement agencies “step up” enforcement of the public health order.

According to the California Health and Safety Code, failure to comply with a public health officer order is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. This and earlier California Health and Safety Code sections give police and deputies the authority to enforce public health orders with citations of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, or both.

The Press Democrat, Los Angeles Times, Marin Independent Journal and Napa Valley Register contributed to this article.

Show Comment