Sonoma County sheriff backtracks, says he will enforce coronavirus orders

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

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, days after announcing that his agency would no longer enforce the county’s coronavirus public health order, has reversed course and agreed to stand behind local restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

After a weekend of discussions with the county Board of Supervisors, Essick said Monday that he and his deputies would enforce the current order until June 8 based on assurances from officials that they would work toward a more balanced approach to reopening the economy. Deputies will continue to emphasize education over punitive action in enforcing the order, he said.

“I am now confident in the process moving forward, that we’re going to move from an essential/nonessential stance to a risk-based approach, and that a risk-based approach will better align Sonoma County with the state guidelines,” he told the Santa Rosa-based Press Democrat this week.


Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin and Essick released a joint statement on Monday pledging a collaborative approach and noting that though the county had been successful in flattening the curve of the virus’ spread, the risk had not diminished.

Sheriff Mark Essick says his department will stop enforcing local shelter-in-place restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, even as cases rise.

“As in any complex situation, there are additional threats that must be considered — including public safety issues that arise out of a prolonged economic shutdown. We do not yet know the full impact on mental health, economic distress, extended family support, and child abuse,” the statement read.

“Law enforcement has already seen a marked increase in attempted suicides, domestic violence and child endangerment. These impacts must factor into our decision-making process and policy priorities as well.”

The county also announced the creation of an economic recovery task force aimed at shifting the region from a stay-at-home model to one that emphasizes a “risk-based” approach to reopening.

The sheriff’s reversal comes four days after his announcement on Facebook that his department would no longer enforce the county’s health order, which he said had “placed significant restrictions on our freedoms.”

Essick had criticized the county’s mandate for being far more restrictive than the state order, despite the county’s relatively low infection rate compared with other regions of California.

“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 last week.

The sheriff’s remarks came after the county’s health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, announced that officials would hold off on allowing the reopening of some businesses following a rise in local coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

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.

While Sonoma County was given the green light by the state to reopen stores, hair salons and places of worship, Mase said it would not do so for a few weeks.

She noted at the time that Sonoma County had reported 203 new cases of the virus over the most recent 14-day span, doubling its case rate in that time from 20 per 100,000 residents to 41 per 100,000. The county had reported 566 coronavirus cases and four deaths as of Monday.

Essick’s position quickly prompted public rebukes from county officials and statements from other law enforcement officials reinforcing their dedication to the health order.

“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,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said in a Facebook post last week.

County Supervisor Shirlee Zane criticized Essick’s decision to abruptly halt enforcement without first talking with elected officials or Mase.

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