In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, OC Sheriff Don Barnes said he might punish people for “egregious violations” of the statewide mask order, but will continue to opt for “education first” and warned against issuing fines, like some California cities do.
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Enforcement for “egregious violations” could lead to citations or arrests, though deputies will continue to emphasize voluntary compliance through education, said Sheriff spokesperson Carrie Braun on Wednesday.
“That’s at the discretion of the deputy and they have multiple tools to use,” Braun said. “It’s the same that any local law enforcement officer would have, which could be a citation anywhere up to the possibility of an arrest, but again that’s up to discretion of the deputy.”
Barnes said he supports wearing masks.
“I want to make clear that I support wearing face coverings in accordance with recommendations by our public health officials,” Barnes wrote in his Tuesday letter to the Governor, adding that from the outset of the crisis, “my department has taken an educational approach to public health orders.”
He maintained his approach is “similar to that taken by law enforcement agencies across the state.”
Though law enforcement officials in Los Angeles County cities like Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Santa Monica have more specifically outlined how they’ll ramp up enforcement of the mask order, and announced they’ll started issuing tickets and fines for violations of the mask order as COVID-19 hospitalizations in their county and in Orange County have been rising.
Barnes’ letter to Newsom comes on the heels of Voice of OC twice asking Newsom during the governor’s press conferences about OC’s mask enforcement.
“I have a great respect for the overwhelming majority of officials in Orange County that want to do the right thing,” said Newsom in a Monday news conference. During the news conference before that, Newsom expressed optimism that he and the county were “turning a new page.”
Back in late April, Newsom ignited a legal battle with some of the county’s coastal cities after ordering the beaches closed in an attempt to curb hot weather crowds where the virus could’ve transmitted. Orange County Superior Court judges in two separate cases ultimately turned down cities’ challenges to the order.
“Unfortunately recent press reports and questions asked by the media at your press conferences have created the perception of a conflict between the efforts of the State of California and the County of Orange,” Barnes wrote.
Enforcement efforts beyond education, Barnes said, “is only necessary in instances where egregious violations occur. On the whole deputies have found that our residents, businesses and houses of worship have made an ongoing effort to be responsible and do their part to take needed precautions.”
“Punitive escalated enforcement is not practical and would consume resources needed to handle our daily calls for service and work to address violations of criminal law. Additionally the issuance of new fines during this time of economic uncertainty places undue stresses on the public and could exacerbate peaceful law enforcement interaction into a volatile moment,” Barnes wrote, adding that the department will “evaluate our enforcement posture on an ongoing basis and can redeploy resources as needed.”
OC is experiencing record-level hosplitizations as the virus continues to spread, with some doctors questioning if hospitals will have the ability to handle the incoming surge.
Some of the agencies include the Alcoholic Beverage Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Business Oversight, the Department of Consumer Affairs and the California Highway Patrol.
Newsom said the strike teams will first work with businesses and counties that are flaunting the rules, but won’t hesitate to take enforcement action if people don’t comply.
The Governor, along with the State Legislature, is threatening to withhold $2.5 billion from counties that fail to enforce public health orders like bar closures and the mask mandate. Much of that money is used to fund programs like food stamps and welfare.
Newsom issued the statewide mask mandate June 18 and questions about OC’s mask enforcement immediately began to swirl.
Before the statewide mandate, the mask debate raged for weeks in OC as County Supervisor Michelle Steel questioned the science behind the masks at a board meeting and Supervisor Don Wagner criticized the old county mask order for a lack of transparency.
Former Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick quietly issued the order over Memorial Day weekend, as state health officials allowed OC’s restaurants and shopping centers to reopen.
Quick faced a wave of pushback from County Supervisors and residents following her order. She abruptly resigned June 8, following threats from residents and at least one protest in front of her house.
Dr. Clayton Chau, a psychiatrist by training who heads up the OC Health Care Agency and was appointed as Acting Public Health Director by supervisors after Quick resigned, quickly walked the order back on June 11 despite his support for the science behind masking.
Given the lack of enforcement ethos from county supervisors and Barnes’ public statements, other Orange County civic leaders have come forward in recent weeks asking for leadership on masking.
Various Orange County union representatives and the OC Labor Federation held a press conference last month calling on County officials to reinstate the mask order during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We tried completing most of it, unfortunately folks were trying to shut us down. They were asking to be heard, is what they were saying. Evidently they didn’t want us to be heard. They were shoving and pushing us. They seemed like they were more interested in silencing us then having an actual discussion,” said federation project leader Luis Aleman.
The anti-mask group was at the Supervisors’ special meeting last month and nearly got the meeting shut down because they repeatedly brought up the masks during a John Wayne Airport closed session item on Hertz rental car declaring bankruptcy.
“They were shoving and hitting us with their signs,” Aleman said.
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.