Calif. sheriff to cease COVID-19 order enforcement

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said guidance from county health officials was too inconsistent to be enforced

Lori A. Carter
The Press Democrat

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — Beginning Monday, Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies will no longer enforce the local health order meant to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, setting up potential conflicts between residents and businesses in cities and those in unincorporated areas of the county.

Sheriff Mark Essick, after back-and-forth-and-back-again announcements last week, set today as the first day his deputies will cease enforcing the shelter-in-place order issued by Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase.

Essick said he believes the requirements in the order are inconsistent and that Mase has not provided the evidence or transparency he wants. He said the Sheriff’s Office will abide by the state order instead.

The decision — which caught other law enforcement leaders and political leaders by surprise — has sown confusion and anger.

In Sonoma and Windsor, the cities’ police departments are composed of sheriff’s deputies with a sheriff’s lieutenant as the chief. Following Essick’s decision, both cities’ chiefs published letters to their communities explaining how the orders would be enforced there, given that they are under the Sheriff’s Office umbrella.

The letters, nearly copies of each other, appear to support existing enforcement efforts and not the tactic taken by Essick.

“We will continue to educate and inform our community of the health and safety guidelines, to include social distancing, facial coverings and other safety mitigation measures that are in place,” Windsor Chief Ruben Martinez said in his letter. “We will continue to respond to calls for service regarding the health order on a case by case basis. Our foremost priority is the safety of our community and that will not change.”

The letter never states outright the department will enforce the county order. Instead, Martinez asks for voluntary compliance: “We continue to ask our community to work together, have patience and comply with the guidelines set by County of Sonoma Public Health.”

Sonoma Chief Orlando Rodriguez was less specific in his letter, asking residents to “comply with the guidelines that were set in place for your safety” but not specifically the county order.

Essick has argued that he will abide by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place rules, not Sonoma County’s. He did not respond to a message seeking comment Sunday.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia would not make Martinez or Rodriguez available to clarify their letters Sunday. But he said “they will be enforcing the county health order.”

Political leaders in both Windsor and Sonoma said they expect their officers to enforce the county health rules.

“It’s my understanding we’ve gone through the order and our contract (with the Sheriff’s Office), and we do have purview on enforcement and how our department will operate,” said Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey.

Windsor Councilmember Deb Fudge said the final line in Martinez’s letter seeking compliance indicates Windsor police will enforce the county rules.

“That was specifically put in there because Essick is following state guidelines. We’re following the county order,” she said. “The Windsor police chief’s supervisor is the town manager. We’re not the sheriff’s department. They may be deputies but they are assigned to the town.”

Both Harvey and Fudge worried that Essick’s refusal to enforce the county health order in unincorporated areas might embolden businesses to open prematurely or encourage residents to abandon social distancing and mask- wearing, sparking another wave of infectious spread.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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