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Enhanced enforcement for COVID-19 scofflaws appears weak with coverage gaps

The anonymous tip came in at 5:15 p.m. on Aug. 14.

A purportedly large wedding party was planned for the following day at a residence in Occidental. The location was provided.

“Please act on this information,” said the email. “It is putting a small community at huge risk.”

The tipster sent that plea to a new inbox set up by Sonoma County for concerned citizens to report scofflaws defying public health orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The result, in this case?

Nothing. Because it came in after 5 p.m. on a Friday, the email wasn’t read until the following Monday.

“In this case,” allowed Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, “the system totally failed.”

The inaction on that complaint, coupled with the number of citations issued by the county code enforcement department, which runs the new program — zero, through the first two weeks of its operation — calls into question its effectiveness.

Alarmed by this summer’s galloping rates of COVID-19 infections in the county, and prodded by Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, supervisors agreed on a new approach to help bring those numbers down. They passed an ordinance to set up a dedicated citizen phone line and email address, which went live on Aug. 8.

Before that, the county’s sole recourse to stop health order violators was a misdemeanor charge brought by law enforcement. The new program allows for more aggressive enforcement of the health order.

In theory, at least.

The warning about the Occidental wedding party fell through the cracks. California state public health directives prohibiting “professional, social and community gatherings” cover both indoor and outdoor spaces.

In a brief interview Thursday at her place of work, Rachele Lunardi, a member of one of Occidental’s most well-known families, confirmed the wedding was hers. She refused to say how many guests had attended.

What happened? How did the anonymous tip fall through the cracks?

The new tip line “is not a 24/7 hotline,” county spokesman Paul Gullixson said. Because the complaint came in after business hours, it wasn’t seen until the following Monday.

And that’s too bad, said Gullixson, who characterized any large wedding as “exactly what we’re encouraging people to avoid.”

Gorin likewise expressed “disappointment” with the couple for moving forward with their wedding ceremony “during the age of COVID, when we have explicitly stated that mass gatherings are not to be permitted.”

She also acknowledged “some challenges” faced by the new tip line “that we’re only staffing during business hours. It makes no sense to me, during COVID-19.”

“So I’ll ask the question: How can we expand the hours? Because what we have now is not sufficient for our needs,” Gorin said.

Around 10:15 p.m. Saturday, after leaving the wedding party, Miles Chenoweth, 29, was struck by a pickup, suffering life-threatening injuries. Chenoweth, a graduate of El Molino High School, had been walking on Bohemian Highway. The 83-year-old driver of the pickup said he never saw Chenoweth, who was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Chenoweth died on Monday.

CHP officer David deRutte confirmed Wednesday that Chenoweth had been at the Lunardi wedding.

Gullixson reminded citizens that if they do become aware of a situation crying out for immediate attention during nonbusiness hours or on a weekend, “we encourage them to call the nonemergency numbers of their local law enforcement.”

After fielding and assessing complaints, Permit Sonoma refers some of them to an outside agency, such as county or city parks departments. The rest are handled by a special team of code enforcement officers, along with investigators on loan from the District Attorney’s Office.

In adopting the ordinance giving civil authorities power to enforce the public health orders, county supervisors emphasized their priority is to educate, rather than penalize, the public. To give the ordinance teeth, however, a schedule of fines was adopted. Individuals found to have committed infractions — for failing to wear face coverings, for instance, or not practicing safe social distancing from nonfamily members — can be fined a flat fee of $100.

Commercial operations such as restaurants, bars and stores face fines starting at $1,000 for noncompliance, with penalties ramping up to $5,000, then $10,000 for subsequent offenses.

Those civil penalties give officers an enforcement option short of a criminal misdemeanor, said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who initially questioned the need for the tip line, noting police and sheriff’s deputies had been able to handle the volume of complaints.

Based on what had happened in neighboring counties who adopted similar tip lines, the number of complaints would markedly increase, county Administrator Sheryl Bratton predicted.

She was correct. While the Sheriff’s Office had responded to 767 health order complaints between mid-March and August, Permit Sonoma fielded more than 800 in the new program’s first 11 days, the latest figures available.

That those tips have not resulted in citations is not necessarily a bad thing, Gullixson said.

“It’s encouraging, because it means we haven’t had to make a repeat visit,” he said. After they are warned, in other words, violators begin to comply. “And that’s a good thing.”

In the meantime, couples who want to tie the knot still can, Gorin said. Many couples have been married, “and are planning the reception for next year.”

“It’s a great year to get married,” said Rabbitt, noting couples have a built-in excuse not to spend a fortune on their nuptials.

You can have a low-cost wedding, he said, “without coming off like a cheapskate.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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