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Sonoma County retreated on reopening. Now the sheriff will stop enforcing coronavirus orders

The Buena Vista Winery sits empty in Sonoma on April 1.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Sonoma County’s top law enforcement official announced this week that his agency will no longer enforce the county’s public health order, saying the mandate has placed inconsistent restrictions on businesses and public activities without explanation.

Sheriff Mark Essick wrote Thursday in a post on Facebook that effective Monday, he’s directing all Sheriff’s Office staff to stop enforcing the local health order, which he contends has “placed significant restrictions on our freedoms” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Reports of violations, when brought to our attention, will be evaluated against the California State guidelines on a case-by-case basis,” he wrote. “Where appropriate, the Sheriff’s Office will use public interactions as an opportunity to educate people on how to mitigate the risk and spread of the COVID-19 infection.”

He has also directed the Sheriff’s Office detention division to refuse to book individuals into the county jail whose sole offense is violating the county’s health order.

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The county’s initial and subsequent health orders since the onset of the pandemic have been far more restrictive than the state order, despite the county’s relatively low infection rate compared with other regions in California, Essick wrote.

The county — which had reported 531 coronavirus cases and four deaths as of Thursday — has dramatically increased its testing capacity in recent weeks. That data has shown the infection rate is “under control and decreasing,” Essick wrote.

“Based on what we have learned, now is the time to move to a risk-based system and move beyond blanket orders that are crushing our community,” he wrote.

Lassen County reported its first cases, and Sonoma County has seen an increase after being among the first in the state to ease stay-at-home orders.

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Sonoma County’s health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, presented a different picture this week when she announced that officials would hold off on allowing the reopening of some businesses because of a recent rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

Sonoma County has reported 203 new cases of the virus in the last 14 days, doubling its case rate in that time from 20 per 100,000 residents to 41 per 100,000. Officials are particularly concerned about the increase in instances of the virus being transmitted between people who have recently returned to work, Mase said.

“We’ve also seen, over the weekend, a few more hospitalizations that make us worried that we might be seeing more COVID in our vulnerable populations,” she said.

While Sonoma County was given the green light by the state to reopen in-store retail, hair salons and places of worship under the state’s latest guidance, public health officials say the region will not amend its shelter-in-place order to include those services for now.

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County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she was disappointed by Essick’s decision to abruptly halt enforcement without first talking with elected officials or Mase. She said the data the sheriff presented is outdated and attempts to minimize the public health threat the county is experiencing.

“This is not the time to be breaking rank, so to speak,” she said. “It’s a time for all of the elected officials to stand together to get through this.”

Law enforcement in Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, will continue to enforce the county health order, Police Chief Ray Navarro said in a Facebook post Thursday.

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“The Santa Rosa Police Department will continue to support the health officer, who is the subject matter expert, leading a safe, strategic and data driven process for reopening,” Navarro wrote. “We eagerly look forward to additional allowances in the upcoming weeks, when it is determined safe to do so, but throughout those amendments, our agency will continue to respond to health order violations.”

Conflicts between county health orders and local enforcement have popped up in other regions of California amid the health crisis.

After Orange County health officials issued a health order mandating that residents wear cloth face coverings while in public, the county sheriff said publicly that he had no intention of enforcing the requirement.

“We are not the mask police — nor do I intend to be the mask police,” Sheriff Don Barnes told the county Board of Supervisors this week. “I think what we have seen repeatedly throughout the community is Orange County residents acting responsibly.”


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