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Northern California citizens call tip lines on mask, social distancing offenders

Still unable to shake the pandemic, Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties have introduced hotlines for citizens to call in bad mask or social distancing behavior — whether involving an individual or a business.

And so far in Marin County, Office of Emergency Services spokeswoman Angela Nicholson says a few callers have made it their business to be regular contributors.

“Unfortunately, it’s a true story that much of the enforcement has been on the backs of essential service workers,” she said.

A statewide shutdown in March followed later by a relaxation of the rules quickly turned in July to a virus resurgence followed by new restrictions. Counties across the state then decided to implement health-code policies once it became clear that, in order to deter the threat of COVID-19, they’d need to require citizens wear masks and practice social distancing.

Since the tip line’s inception in Marin in early July, the county has averaged about 35 daily complaints on perceived violations ranging from cyclists maneuvering through crowded areas to short-term rentals attracting large groups.

Other calls are more creative. Some have indicated businesses that are required to be closed for indoor service such as hair and nail salons have covered their windows with brown paper to sneak customers in the back door.

One common complaint is difficult to enforce. Many callers complain about people simply not wearing masks.

A handful of citations have been issued for “intentional violators,” who show no regard to the rules, Nicholson reported. One arrest was made for an undisclosed environmental health code violation, she added. Cities within the county have added enforcement to the task force.

In this stifling business environment, Marin County — like others — would prefer to educate the public of the right way to operate and co-exist with others than to simply levy fines. Fines for individual violators to the ordinance range from $25 to $500. Commercial businesses could be slapped with civil penalties starting from $250 on up to $10,000.

Most counties are hoping their ordinance penalties will serve as a bit of a deterrent.

“If we get people in compliance, that’s our goal. It’s not to cite,” Nicholson insisted.

Sonoma County sees steady flow

Sonoma County, which enacted its ordinance within a week of its western neighbor, has received and collected 815 calls and emails from possible health-code violators, county spokesman Paul Gullixson told the Business Journal.

“In the first five days, we averaged 110 a day. Then, it slowed to about 30 to 35,” he said.

About 80% of the perceived violations were listed in the incorporated areas of the county. The cities within the county assist in enforcement. No citations have been issued in the unincorporated area of the county.

Fines may start as low as $100 for individuals and climb to up to $10,000 for commercial violators.

Like Marin, Sonoma County has heard of some hair salon operators “letting people in the back door,” he mentioned. Salons were shut down to indoor personal care services when the counties were placed on a watch list last month for a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. People appear to also be circumventing the front door at bars.

“We’ve had calls of closed bars letting their friends in from the back,” Gullixson said.

As for frequent complaints, about a third of the calls involve activity at parks such as children playing soccer in large groups.

What’s the most common complaint? Not surprisingly, the county has fielded a number of calls from a policing citizenry noting that businesses have allowed either employees or customers to refrain from wearing masks.

Once a county receives a legitimate complaint on the tip line manned from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., code enforcement will make a site visit. The gesture seems keep the order in check.

“We haven’t had to go back after that,” he said.

Calls for compliance work for Napa County

Napa County officials came out of the starting gate early with its regulations, which were adopted in early April.

The average number of calls over the first six weeks amounted to 60- to 70 “concerns” listed per week, county Director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services David Morrison told the Business Journal.

Morrison, who oversees the ordinance compliance program, reiterated familiar comments shared by fellow North Bay county officials. Complaints were listed such as neighbors witnessing large parties and events as well as haircuts performed inside stylists’ homes, along with children “playing basketball when it’s crowded,” he mentioned.

Napa County also relies on its cities for assistance and stays in touch with conference calls about every other week.

A few restaurants were cited for operating when they were supposed to be closed. None were fined. Civil penalties in Napa County range from $100 to $500 to individuals and homeowners; and $1,000 to $5,000 to violators operating a business.

“The goal was never about getting money,” Morrison said. “It’s all about the education.”

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