Orange County officials are moving to enforce a statewide coronavirus masks mandate and business closures as the Fourth of July weekend draws near, following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement the county is on a state watchlist for its virus cases trending upward.
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After two weeks of public silence on the issue, OC Sheriff Don Barnes said his deputies will take a light-handed approach to Newsom’s mask directive.
“Wearing a face covering is important to mitigate the risk and spread of COVID-19. We have to be practical when considering enforcement of face coverings. With limited exceptions, 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,” Barnes said in a Thursday statement.
“As many other industries are gaining compliance through an education-first approach, deputies will continue to educate the public about the statewide face-covering requirement and will request voluntary compliance,” he said.
On Wednesday, Newsom closed all bars in OC and the 18 other counties on the state watch list, along with indoor restaurant dining. Movie theaters and other entertainment centers are effectively closed, because Newsom ordered their operations to be moved outside.
Orange County was placed on the watchlist Monday for its spiking coronavirus hospitalizations and positive case counts.
County Chief Executive Officer Frank Kim said OC Health Care Agency staff will enforce the restrictions on restaurants.
“We will take appropriate enforcement action. I think early on this process there was quite a bit of education,” Kim said at a Thursday news conference. “At this time we are following our normal protocol in terms of education and enforcement.”
County enforcement on movie theaters and similar, non-food businesses remains unclear because they fall outside of the Health Care Agency’s jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Newsom created a task force made up of a slew of regulatory agencies to enforce health directives.
The task force will have “strike teams” in six California regions in an effort to gain compliance with countywide and statewide health orders as the virus continues to worsen in OC and the state.
Some of the agencies include the Alcoholic Beverage Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Business Oversight and the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Throughout the pandemic, Newsom has emphasized partnering with local governments and letting them lead enforcement efforts.
But on Thursday, Newsom said his task force will enforce health mandates if counties don’t.
“We reserve the right to move forward with this mandate if we don’t see actions at this level demonstrably – we expect all 19 counties to come into compliance,” the governor said
Asked by Voice of OC whether he thinks his enforcement plan will work in Orange County – where county supervisors and the sheriff have previously resisted it – heading into the Fourth of July weekend, Newsom said county officials are willing to help.
He praised county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett for taking the contingency money seriously in phone conversations and said the county’s progress is “demonstrable” because OC seaside cities ordered beach closures ahead of the holiday weekend.
Newsom, along with the state Legislature, set aside $2.5 billion for counties, which could be withheld from a county for failing to enforce the statewide coronavirus mandates, like masks or business closures.
Municipal officials “are moving forward with their own local decision to close down parking lots to help decompress the beaches,” Newsom said during a Thursday news conference.
“I think it’s an example that we’re turning a page,” he said.
When Newsom ordered the beach closures in late April, the state and cities like Huntington Beach 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.
County CEO Kim, at Thursday’s news conference, said some enforcement may have to fall to cities.
“There is a role for the county in terms of enforcement. Whether it’s from a LE (law enforcement) perspective, I can’t speak on behalf of the sheriff,” Kim said, adding most large county cities have their own police departments.
“Local cities also have their local health orders and restrictions, etc,” Kim said.
Some cities, like Anaheim, have recently enacted their own health order requiring people to wear masks.
Anaheim interim City Manager Greg Garcia issued an order Wednesday requiring everyone to wear masks in public and while at businesses if they can’t maintain six feet from others.
“Willful violation” of the order is punishable by a misdemeanor.