The County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to strengthen public health order enforcement on non-compliant businesses while promising to keep the response “fair and consistent with science and data."
Under the new strategy, county compliance teams will be conducting inspections at businesses that have public health order complaints against them, or that are traced to community outbreaks.
The teams will also be able to independently observe people and businesses that aren’t the subject of complaints, according to Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher.
“They give us the ability to go into some of those places that are allowed to be open, grocery stores and big box retail, and make sure they are following the rules that they are supposed to follow,” Fletcher said.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said the board is focused on correcting what he called an erratic and inconsistent message that came from a divided board in 2020.
Nine more compliance teams were added to the county’s force, giving them 39 teams to deploy across the county.
The board also agreed to increase citations for businesses violating the county’s Safe Reopening Plan, and to make non-compliant businesses ineligible for county relief funds.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has long been opposed to most business restrictions, was the only board member to vote against the bolstered enforcement plan.
“I can't support the increased enforcement on businesses. I'm all for increased education, making sure enforcing health and safety protocols, but not on closing down businesses. I've been chastised for going out and talking to businesses that have remained open, trying to hear them, and what I heard from them is that the primary complaint is they're being discriminated against. Business sectors are not being treated fair and equally.”
To date, the county said it has issued 335 cease-and-desist orders, and about a third of those in violation remain in violation.
The next step is for county compliance teams and law enforcement agencies, including the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control department if there's a liquor license involved.
Some North County restaurant owners staying open in protest confirmed they're getting calls and visits from the county and from ABC.
One pizza parlor owner said he’s keeping his doors open despite the bolstered enforcement efforts.
“I’m going to stay open as long as I can,” said Joseph Locricchio, owner of Tony Pepperoni’s in Escondido and Rancho Bernardo. “I am going to stay open. I don't want to close again. it's not about wanting, I can't close."
Both of Locricchio’s restaurants, which are seating diners on-site in defiance of the state’s stay-at-home order, have received cease-and-desist orders from the county. He said the ABC even filed a criminal complaint against him.
But for Locricchio, the consequences of closing his doors would be far worse than the penalties for defiance.
“I don't understand it,” Locricchio said in reaction to the county’s new enforcement strategy. “Why would they be increasing enforcement? All we are trying to do is run our business."
And while indoor and outdoor dining is prohibited, Locricchio said customers are still showing up.
“The customers have been great. Overwhelmingly supportive, way more than I ever thought,” he said.
So far, 17,000 health order violation complaints were reported countywide, and more than half of those were made over the last month, according to the county.
“This has just gone too far. More restrictions causes more rebellion, more trouble,” Locricchio said.
As for the data the county is trying to focus on, the numbers over the last month are concerning.
The county has reported 91,347 COVID-19 cases since Dec. 12, or 46% of its total caseload (198,319). Since the same date, 747 deaths have been reported, accounting for 39% of the county’s total since the pandemic began (1,898).
Locricchio said he’s had a few positive cases among his staff over the last year, but after quarantining they have all returned to work.
Health officials agree the best way to curb the spread of the disease is to limit people from different households coming together, which is why bans on on-site dining and group gatherings have been implemented.