North Bay counties, businesses closing in on mask violators during coronavirus pandemic

Anti-mask wearers may soon feel the bite of new rules enacted to reverse COVID-19's surging numbers, and the enforcers may be their local businesses.

Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties are moving to fine those who ignore the coronavirus health orders that mandate the public wear masks inside buildings and outside when 6-foot social distancing is not achieved. They’ve also offered assistance to businesses that want to play by the rules and need help with signs and other educational materials that define how customers may enter their storefronts.

On Thursday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors laid out a plan that would include flat fines of $100 each to individuals who neglect the state and local health orders related to mask-wearing and public gatherings. Fines would stiffen to a range of $500 to $10,000 for noncomplying businesses.

Sonoma County also plans a nearly $80,000 educational and outreach campaign called “Safe Sonoma Summer,” using radio, print, online, video and infographics messaging in English and Spanish.

During its virtual special meeting, the supervisors bantered over whether to stiffen penalties, concentrate on a less-invasive educational approach or involve more than sheriff’s deputies to enforce the rules. This may include code-enforcement officers and parks department employees. The sheriff’s department has logged 767 calls of violations related to the health orders.

“I think we need to be bolder,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said, referring to the call for more law-enforcement guidelines.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins even floated the idea of handing out “co-branded” masks to turn the order into a benefit.

The supervisors’ proposed emergency ordinance comes amid surging coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths that led to a second wave of business closures. The matter will return on Aug. 6.

“These particular indicators have put us on a monitoring list and the state’s watch list,” county Health Officer Sundari Mase told the supervisors during the July 23 special meeting.

Two days before, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that applies civil penalties to individual violators between $25 and $500. Businesses that ignore orders face fines ranging from $250 to $10,000. Supervisors during that special meeting pledged to review cases through a “racial equity lens” when members of the public mentioned concerns people of color may be targeted by law enforcement.

In Napa County, fines range from $25 to $500 for individuals and $200 to $5,000 for commercial enterprises.

This cascade of new enforcement leaves business the task of getting anti-mask customers to toe the line of rules that were originally initiated by the state.

Joe Carlo, who owns Pink Owl Coffee in San Rafael, was even confronted by a regular who cited “health reasons” for not wearing a mask.

“I took her order outside,” Carlo said as a compromise. Pink Owl opened as the coronavirus ramped up in February.

Carlo has adjusted to the new way of operating his coffeehouse by taking Marin County’s free signs and signing up for delivery services such as Uber Eats, Grub Hub and Door Dash.

“Because of this, we’ve learned to adapt,” he said.

Other than the occasional violation, Marin County shop owners and managers have seen fewer instances of belligerent or ignorant customers who refuse or decline to wear masks.

Emily Rich, who serves on the Novato Downtown Business Association board, said she hasn’t heard from members of mask-wearing debates and scuffles like those in other areas.

“Fortunately not,” she said.

For her own baby clothing shop, Village Child, the absence of mask-wearing problems could be due to her shifting business model — which she has taken online.

“I don’t have nearly as much foot traffic,” she said.

Despite being open seven days a week, the online orders have taken a front seat in retail sales brought in. Rich believes the change “accommodates people who are working from home.”

Village Child has averaged a handful of in-person customers per day.

But she’s convinced essential businesses such as big-box stores and pharmacies would probably see the majority of violations because of the sheer number of customers entering through their doors.

With the number of cases significantly rising across the nation, chain stores such as Walmart, CVS and Target have initiated mandatory mask rules to stem the spread of the virus.

Target will begin the new rule on Aug. 1 at all its stores except for those with underlying medical conditions and young children.

“This builds on the more than 80% of our stores that already require guests to wear face coverings due to local and state regulations,” Target spokesman Drew Halunen told the Business Journal.

The Minneapolis-based clothing chain store, which manages 1,868 stores in North America including several in the North Bay, provides disposable masks at store entrances to guests who don’t have them. Drive-up and online sales are encouraged.

Another essential chain business, CVS Health, accelerated its COVID protective measures in mandating masks inside its stores effective July 20.

But how does a retailer enforce such a rule when the issue has become so politicized? A store clerk may not have the appetite or will to enforce such a rule to a belligerent customer.

“For safety reasons, we have asked our employees to avoid escalated confrontations with customers who decline to comply,” CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis told the Business Journal.

Instead, the employees are asked to expedite the customers purchases, “while providing information about other options” available.

With its headquarters in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, CVS Health operates more than 6,000 drug retail stores in the United States.

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