(TNS) - No longer shy about challenging scofflaw businesses, two Sacramento-area counties now say they will fine or suspend permits of businesses that resist coronavirus safety measures.
The threat of fining or shutting down recalcitrant businesses is one that most local governments in California have been loathe to take, fearing it would stir anger among constituent businesses who believe their rights are being infringed.
But with virus infections surging, Yolo and El Dorado county officials say they’d rather take a tough stance in hopes it will help slow virus spread and allow them to avoid being ordered by the state to once again shut down entire segments of the economy.
“We felt we had to. Our hand was forced,” said Gary Sandy, chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors after his county was the first to announce last week it will now fine egregiously non-complaint businesses.
“We felt things were slipping away,” he said.
Those steps would be administrative, involving code enforcement officers for the counties at this point, officials said. Law enforcement, such as sheriff’s departments, have been notably uninvolved in enforcing state and local coronavirus orders, and sheriffs typically have said they are not inclined to get involved.
In Southern California, the cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood are among jurisdictions who announced they too would institute fines for those blatantly disregarding virus safety efforts.
Will more local jurisdictions follow?
Sacramento County says it’s considering a tougher enforcement stance, but is taking other tacks for now to reduce the infection spread. In other rural counties that had been defiant of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay at home order, such as Yuba and Sutter counties, some leaders continue to balk at the state’s mandates, but acknowledge some level of tougher local enforcement is always possible.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has continued to put pressure on reluctant businesses throughout California. During the July 4 weekend, agents fanned out to 5,800 businesses in 21 counties to educate and to warn owners about the possibility of license revocation if they blatantly disregard state orders. Newsom recently said that almost all businesses contacted by the state have chosen to be compliant, and have avoided disciplinary action.
Yolo takes the lead
Yolo County had been the most proactive county in the region in taking steps to reduce COVID-19 infections. It passed the first mandatory face mask rule, weeks ahead of the governor’s June edict. The county also ordered bar closures prior to the July 4 weekend and required restaurants to cease indoor dining. But Yolo’s infection numbers continue to rise. That includes notable nursing home outbreaks.
Yolo county officials last week announced they will fine businesses between $500 and $10,000 for failing to adhere to mask, distancing and other safety protocols, likely starting next week. The county’s emergency ordinance, passed on Tuesday by its board of supervisors, also allows county health officials to cite individuals $25 to $500 for failing to adhere to state and county virus safety regulations.
Yolo County officials reached out to the state as well, inviting state regulators who oversee restaurants, bars, hair salons and nail salons to take a heavier hand in warning businesses and potentially revoking licenses. Those state agencies, on Newsom’s orders, have gone into numerous counties in recent months, telling recalcitrant business owners to obey state and county rules or, in some cases, face license revocation.
Board chair Sandy said the move appears to have persuaded one business right away. A Davis restaurant that was packing patrons on its patio suddenly separated tables so that strangers are not sitting within six feet of each other.
One prominent restaurateur said the county has to step up its enforcement to create a level playing field between those abiding by the regulations and those that aren’t.
John Pickerel, co-owner of the Buckhorn Grill restaurants and Winters’ Putah Creek Cafe, said he’s aware of at least two restaurants in Woodland that have flagrantly disregarded the rules.
“Word gets out and they’re enjoying a little better business because they’re ignoring the rules,” said Pickerel, who recently laid off scores of employees for a second time after the county banned indoor dining again.
El Dorado gets tough
El Dorado County on Thursday became the second county in the region to implement an enforcement program. The county is the lightest hit so far in the region by COVID-19, but has seen a worrisome surge in cases in the last two weeks in the Tahoe basin, where visitors have been flocking.
The county board met in emergency session Thursday and gave the go-ahead for officials to suspend health permits for businesses that are adamant about refusing to follow safety protocols, but only after being informed of the requirement to do so. Without a health permit, a business would be forced to shut down.
Those may include grocery stores that refuse to post coronavirus safety guidelines on windows and restaurants that decline to require servers to wear masks.
El Dorado officials said they wanted to avoid the move.
“It wasn’t anybody’s first choice,” county spokeswoman Carla Hass said. “We’re four months into this (pandemic) and just starting now.”
But, given some dismissive behavior by a few businesses, “it was time to step up efforts and go beyond education and take another tact,” Hass said.
She emphasized that code officers will only visit businesses if the county gets citizen complaints about that business, and that environmental health officers would only move to repeal permits if the owner refuses to comply after being warned.
Several business owners applauded the supervisors’ decision, saying it will help smooth sometimes testy interactions with customers who don’t want to wear masks.
“I’m kind of upset they didn’t do it sooner, like at the beginning,” said Bryan Chase, owner of Kollective, a clothing shop in Placerville.
Chase said he’s been strictly enforcing mask requirements in his shop and “it’s cost me business .... I’ve had people get angry.” He believes other businesses must do the same.
“If you’re not going to protect the safety of your customers, you should be fined,” he said.
Kevin Hutton, manager of a nearby Army Navy surplus store called the Supply Sergeant, said he and his employees constantly face resistance from customers not willing to wear masks. But they do their best to enforce the governor’s rule anyway, and feel others should have to do the same.
“I think it needs to be done,” Hutton said. “We’re getting a lot of blow back.”
Chase said business owners in Placerville are particularly on edge after someone glued pamphlets to several store windows Tuesday bearing the website of a white nationalist group called the Right Stuff. He said the vandals appeared to be targeting stores that are strict about enforcing the mask requirements, as well as stores owned by Jewish people, women and members of the LGBT community.
El Dorado has more to lose at the moment than the other five Sacramento metropolitan area counties: It is the only one that hasn’t yet been ordered by the state to close bars and indoor restaurant dining.
But if El Dorado cannot stem the suddenly rising COVID-19 numbers, it will find itself on that closure list as well.
Sacramento County contemplates enforcement
In Sacramento County, which has seen virus positivity rates rise swiftly in the past month, officials are talking about whether mandatory enforcement is a potential next step.
“We’re starting to discuss it,” county health chief Dr. Peter Beilenson said on Friday. Such a a step would go before the Board of Supervisors first, he said.
For now, the county is taking an intermediate tack. Sacramento is hiring and training several dozen of what it will call “coronavirus navigators,” people from various ethnic groups and communities who will advise small businesses that may be uncertain of what the rules require.
The hope, Beilenson and his colleague, health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said, is that businesses not following the rules will begin doing so if they get guidance.
Beilenson said, however, there continue to be some businesses who refuse to follow rules. He said he has considered calling some of those out in public as a way of pressuring them. He did that once months ago with a local church.
Sacramento health officials said their other priority in the coming weeks is to get more testing sites opened, and to get word to healthcare entities to tell patients to stay home until test results come back. Testing has slowed in the last few weeks causing more people to have to wait a week or more for results.
In that time, Kasirye said, it is important for people to wait at home so that they don’t infect others.
Yuba, Sutter: Enforcement ‘not off the table’
Yuba and Sutter were among the first counties in the state to defy Newsom’s stay-home order, essentially reopening much of their economy in the first week of May. County officials had argued they needed to get their businesses going to avoid economic catastrophe. At the time, the two counties had registered only a handful of cases and rarely had more than one or two people with COVID-19 in the hospital.
That prompted the state to send Alcoholic Beverage Control and barbering and cosmetology board regulators to warn businesses they could lose licenses if they persisted.
The two counties have since seen their positive numbers shoot up, landing them last week on the state’s growing county “watchlist,” which requires the counties to halt indoor restaurant dining and close bars.
Sutter County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Sullenger sent Newsom a letter saying it’s unfair to close businesses “without evidence they are a significant factor in the spike in cases.”
Officials in the two counties acknowledged, however, that they do not know where 40 percent of their cases are coming from, in good part because residents are not cooperating with county contact tracers who are trying to track infections.
The two counties’ health chief, Dr. Phuong Luu, last week made a blunt video urging people to wear masks and to practice safe-distancing, saying local hospitals are becoming burdened with COVID-19 patients.
Spokeswoman Rachel Rosenbaum said the two counties are trying to keep the local economy open and help keep businesses afloat, but also to impress upon residents and businesses their responsibilities to protect themselves and their community.
“How can we be more effective in educating our businesses and community?” she said officials are asking. “We have focused on education.
“I can’t say enforcement is off the table. Businesses have been hit hard, so we don’t want to further burden them, but we need to make them understand why it is important” to take precautionary steps to avoid their location becoming a virus cluster site.
Placer County struggles
Placer County was ordered by the California Department of Public Health to issue an amended order, to take effect Sunday, that effectively shut down bars, limited restaurants to outdoor seating and closed many entertainment venues. The closures are to remain in place until further notice, although the order indicates that they are not to be lifted until at least the start of August.
“I understand how frustrating this is for our local businesses, and my hope is that our whole community will pull together and promote the personal precautions that can help reverse these disease trends,” Placer County Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson said in a prepared statement on Sunday. “Please wash your hands, maintain physical distance, wear a face covering in public, and do not gather with non-household members.”
County officials did not respond to a Bee question Sunday about whether they are considering dispatching code enforcement officers to businesses violating the order.
Placer County has been experiencing increased rates of infection. As of Saturday, a total of 1,055 tests have come back positive in the county, and 11 people have died. On Saturday, 34 more cases were added to the total. The county set a record for daily coronavirus infections on July 5, when 49 people tested positive for the virus. The day before, 42 people tested positive.
Placer County officials emailed a brief statement to The Bee on Friday about their most recent efforts and concerns. County officials say they are pushing for more residents to wear masks, but have seen an improvement on that front in recent days.
“We have seen use of face coverings improve in our community since the state’s June announcement,” health officials said. “We continue to stress the importance of face coverings along with physical distancing in public settings, to help keep our community healthy and protect others. We encourage the public to check out our ‘Got It Covered’ campaign at www.placer.ca.gov/mywhy.”
They also expressed concerns about residents who are not cooperating with county disease investigators, or contact tracers, who have been telephoning people to forewarn them of potential exposure to the virus.
“Some people with positive test results have been hesitant to discuss their activities and have declined to share information about workplaces or close contacts,” officials said. “The focus of Public Health to the COVID-19 response is to provide education and support in order to reduce further transmission of the virus. Identifying information about cases and contacts is kept in strict confidentiality.
“When COVID-19 positive cases and exposed people go unreached, it increases the likelihood of continued transmission in our community.”
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