California Cities, Counties Split on Enforcing Health Orders

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San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore on Thursday announced a “full-time law enforcement presence” to get more businesses to comply with California's tightening coronavirus restrictions, joining one of the most aggressive enforcement efforts in the state.

San Diego County, the state's second most populous with 3.3 million residents, has issued 52 cease-and-desist orders since Monday, sternly worded letters demanding that violators start following health orders. The letters, issued by the county public health officer and posted online, bring unwanted publicity but carry little weight without law enforcement backing.

Gore made a rare appearance at a county coronavirus briefing to make a “full-time commitment” to seeing that Gov. Gavin Newsom's orders on business restrictions stick.

Other counties are taking a softer approach, emphasizing education and persuasion. San Diego County's enforcement push is part of a tug-of-war among California officials over whether to emphasize enforcement or persuasion as infection rates soar and the holidays arrive along with colder weather and the flu season.

Gore assigned four teams of two deputies to accompany health inspectors delivering the cease-and-desist orders, which threaten misdemeanor prosecution and $1,000 fines. Businesses that refuse to comply will be cited and referred for charges to the county district attorney or city attorney.

Sheriff's deputies will respond to complaints only, Gore said, as opposed to going door to door or searching for violations.

Gore said the effort is supported by San Diego and four other cities in the county, but he vowed to go to cities that have refused to make enforcement a priority. That includes El Cajon, a suburb of 103,000, whose mayor has been highly critical and dismissive of the governor's edicts.

“It's just a matter of all of us pulling together, getting through this very difficult time,” Gore said. “Bottom line is wear those damn masks out there, socially distance, and the sooner we do that, the sooner we’re going to get through this crisis.”

Instructors at The Yoga Box were startled when health inspectors arrived simultaneously at four San Diego studios to deliver scolding letters.

Owner Amanda Burns said she complied with two previous state-ordered shutdowns but stayed open Monday after a third order took effect, saying it “was just a matter of trying to survive.”

“They’re coming at us harder," said Burns, who closed her studios after getting cease-and-desist letters on indoor classes.

Posting violators' names online can have benefits and drawbacks, said Don Moore, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business who studies behavioral decision-making.

Consumers may avoid businesses that officials label as unsafe, and businesses may clean up their act. But violators may “find themselves celebrated as some sort of weird folk heroes standing up to government domination,” he said.

Moreover, the publicity may encourage more misbehavior as reluctant businesses realize “there are other scofflaws out there,” Moore said.

Better to reward positive behavior by giving businesses that follow the rules a public seal of approval, “as opposed to ‘This business sucks, they’re horrible,'" said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at University of California, San Francisco.

“This is literally called shaming, public shaming,” Gandhi said.

It’s emblematic of California’s general approach, which has been to focus on poor behavior, she said, even if officials have been reluctant to impose punishment.

On Thursday, Newsom announced a curfew on from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for nearly the whole state starting Saturday. His latest order poses more questions for local law enforcement.

Gore said he needed more time to study the curfew order before he takes a position on enforcing it in San Diego County.

Sheriff John D’Agostini of El Dorado County, near Sacramento, issued a blunt statement that he will not enforce the curfew.

“We will still address reports of criminal activity related to public safety and our El Dorado County citizens,” the statement read. “The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office will continue to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said he would not enforce a nighttime curfew for restaurants and nonessential retail businesses in the nation’s most populous county, where cases more than doubled in the last two weeks and hospitalizations rose 30%.

Officials in Fresno and Placer counties also say they won’t enforce state rules, and two Republican state lawmakers are trying to rally 14 Northern California counties to formally call for a local approach that emphasizes reopenings.

It's a muddled message from the top down, one that can cause residents to ignore warnings, Gandhi said.

The governor has pleaded with residents to avoid gatherings that officials mainly blame for the recent surge. Yet he simultaneously renewed the state’s ban on indoor church services, indoor dining and indoor gym workouts in 41 of the state’s 58 counties.

“Gov. Newsom really finds himself in a predicament in an attempt to get tougher when the state lacks enforcement mechanisms for individual behavior," Moore said. "They can regulate businesses, and so that’s what they’re trying to do.”

With some local officials refusing to act, Newsom created multiagency “strike teams” this summer that have made nearly 1.5 million in-person visits, phone calls and emails, 60% of them within the first month.

The state agencies have since taken 4,163 enforcement actions, including issuing citations and revoking business licenses, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services that coordinates the program.

Eric Nuñez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, views the pandemic as a public health crisis rather than a public safety issue, so police are reluctant to step in.

“Compliance is better gained through education and just trying to reason with people as much as possible,” he said.


Thompson reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writer Stefanie Dazio contributed from Los Angeles.

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