Following a spirited debate, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously authorized administrative enforcement of public health order violations on Thursday.
Effective immediately, under an "urgency ordinance," county personnel may fine individuals and businesses for violations like holding a large gathering, not wearing a mask or not following physical distance guidelines in a business.
A non-commercial violation is subject to a civil penalty of $100. Commercial violations are subject to a $1,000 penalty for the first violation, $5,000 for the second violation and $10,000 for the third violation by the same responsible party.
"The intent is to start with compassionate enforcement and education and then to cite people who are jerks, who are looking back at our compassionate enforcement and saying, 'I'm not going to put my mask on,' or 'I'm not going to shut my business.' That's who you fine. You don't go out into a group of people and just start pulling out your ticket and just start throwing them out at anybody," said Supervisor James Gore.
In passing the urgency ordinance, Sonoma County joins neighboring Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Yolo counties. County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said the ordinance could help curb the county's COVID-19 case rate "because law enforcement isn't sufficient."
But it met a fervent backlash from members of the public concerned about how it would affect immigrants and people of color.
"Noting that it is an emergency ordinance that would be implemented today reveals that the focus is actually on enforcement, compliance, fines and maybe even building revenue rather than on education, health and safety and equity," said county resident Anna Frattolillo.
"I am really concerned about the issue of enforcement when you are talking about immigrants and community members who already have a lot of fear related to law enforcement and immigration enforcement," said Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center.
The ordinance was inspired in part by concerns expressed during a town hall Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Susan Gorin by labor leaders about safety in the workplace, Hopkins said.
Before the ordinance took effect, health order violations could result in a misdemeanor charge, coupled with a $500 fine.
"The goal was to actually take it out of the sheriff's hands and into our civil code enforcement process and set more reasonable fines and couple that with education," Hopkins said.
Hopkins enforcement data will be shared with the Office of Equity and the Latinx Task Force to ensure that the Latinx community, already disproportionately hurt by COVID-19, won't be disproportionately affected by the new enforcement effort.
The ordinance provides $143,132 for the county to create a "robust education campaign" including fliers and door signs in English and Spanish, ads in local newspapers and radio stations, a social media campaign, information tables at grocery stores and work with local community organizations, according to County Communications Manager Paul Gullixson.
The ordinance also created a hotline and email address where members of the public can voice concerns over compliance, by calling 833-SAFE707 or emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org.