For the second news conference in a row, California Gov. Gavin Newsom talked about ramping up enforcement of the state’s mandatory face covering order and other public health guidelines while at the same time praising both Orange County and several Los Angeles County cities — despite the two regions’ starkly different approaches to making sure people mask up.
Editor’s Note: As Orange County’s only nonprofit & nonpartisan newsroom, Voice of OC brings you the best, most comprehensive local Coronavirus news absolutely free. No ads, no paywalls. We need your help. Please, make a tax-deductible donation today to support your local news.
In LA County cities like West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, Sheriff and police officials are issuing citations and tickets to people who aren’t wearing masks in public.
Fines for violations in those cities are set in the range of hundreds of dollars.
Meanwhile in Orange County, Sheriff Don Barnes in a statement this month said deputies will continue to request voluntary compliance.
Barnes in his statement warned against heavier enforcement of the mask order, saying “not wearing a face covering is a violation of the public health order, but it is not a practical application of a criminal law violation” and later adding that during “this time of strained police community relations,” enforcement has “resulted in uses of force and negative outcomes to recognize that an education-first strategy, aimed at obtaining voluntary compliance, is the most sensible and realistic approach.”
His statement made no mention of ticketing or citing people for violating the order.
Despite Orange County’s and the LA County cities’ different approaches to enforcement — and an alarming spike in hospitalizations in both counties and the entire state — Newsom expressed little concern in response to Voice of OC questions on two occasions, during a news conference on Thursday last week and Monday this week.
“A vast majority of counties and sheriffs are doing the right thing,” Newsom said during Monday’s news conference, adding that he had “great respect for an overwhelming majority of officials in Orange County.”
Last Thursday, Newsom expressed optimism that he and the county were “turning a new page.”
When Newsom ordered the beach closures in late April, the state and cities like Huntington Beach and Dana Point engaged in a legal battle over Newsom’s ability to shut down the coastline.
Orange County Superior Court judges in two separate cases ultimately turned down cities challenging the order.
Newsom on both Thursday last week and Monday this week maintained that holding contingent $2.5 billion in state assistance dollars from the county would be an adequate tool to ensure local officials’ effectiveness in enforcing public health orders.
“If that’s not incentive enough, we will assume more responsibility,” he said, but not without adding he couldn’t think of another state that leveraged that much money to keep local jurisdictions in line.
Newsom also announced that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency paid nearly 6,000 visits to businesses and bars across the state. County officials didn’t return questions asking how many of those happened locally.
Yet as local hospitalization rates climb, some businesses in Orange County like Basilico’s Pasta e Vino, an Italian restaurant in Huntington Beach, have reportedly openly defied the state’s mask order — even requesting their patrons not to wear face coverings inside the restaurant.
Managers and spokespeople for the restaurant, which has garnered much media attention, have declined to comment.
Meanwhile Orange County residents over the July 4th weekend publicly gathered for fireworks shows in cities like San Clemente, where many people opted not to mask up.
Newsom heading into the July 4th weekend had said the state would be seeking more aggressive enforcement of public health guidelines by local counties and jurisdictions, and discouraging public gatherings over the weekend.
During both days’ news conferences, Newsom also praised Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett for taking the contingency money seriously as an enforcement tool and taking a responsible approach to her role as president of the California State Association of Counties — a coalition that’s been in direct conversations with Newsom about coordinating COVID-19 response between the state’s regions.
“She has been exceptional,” Newsom said in response to Voice of OC questions on Monday.
Still, Bartlett in a Monday phone interview wasn’t entirely supportive of some of Newsom’s enforcement strategies, like the contingency money.
“He wants to have the ability to withhold some of the realignment funding from the counties, which I’m not 100% advocating for – there’s already a shortfall of funds for those counties, so we’re all struggling in that regard,” she said. “But the governor is insistent upon trying to get a point where we have more voluntary compliance within counties.”
The past few weeks’ dramatic increase in cases has prompted concerns from some county officials like Michelle Steel, who in the past has vocally questioned mandating masks.
But in a Monday statement, citing the surge in new cases, Steel asked “residents and visitors of Orange County to please wear a face covering when you are in a public place and unable to properly social distance, as well as following hygiene and social distancing guidance.”
“This is of the utmost importance to protect your health and the health of others, so that we can return back to normal as quickly as possible,” she said in her statement.
Asked about the possibility of enforcing masks with tickets and citations amid dramatic increases in cases over the last month, Bartlett said there’s a careful balance that needs to be struck between enforcement and voluntary compliance.
“I think Governor Newsom wants to leave it to each county to decide how they want to implement some type of enforcement relative to health and safety, whether it’s warnings or an educational program or ticketing – he wants to leave it at local level,” Bartlett said. “The ultimate goal is to do what you need to do as a county.”
Meanwhile, hospitalization rates in Orange County continue to increase.
The average hospitalizations over the last three days increased by just over 12% compared to the average of the previous three days, according to county data. There have been 17,882 cases to date, with 634 people still hospitalized.
More than 8,600 people have recovered, though 366 people have died from the virus so far.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.