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Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is pushing back again on new health orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying his deputies will not enforce mask mandates or curfew in their jurisdictions.
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Meanwhile, city police departments in some of Orange County’s largest cities say they will respond to such calls, but with a focus on getting people to voluntarily comply instead of issuing citations.
Citing a growing spread of COVID-19, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials issued orders this week setting a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Saturday for people not engaging in “essential” activities like work, and expanding a statewide mask mandate when people are within 6 feet of people from outside their household.
Newsom’s orders have prompted a lot of questions and pushback.
Tony Roman, a local restaurant owner in Huntington Beach who has been denouncing the legality of Newsom’s orders as tyrannical and defying them as far back as March, wrote in a Friday night Instagram post that the governor was “doubling down on fascism.”
While his restaurant, Basilico’s Pasta E Vino, is usually closed by around 10 p.m., Roman said he’s staying open an hour later when the governor’s curfew goes into effect.
Calling themselves “The OC Curfew Breakers,” Alan Hostetter’s group, the American Phoenix Project, is sponsoring a mask-burning protest at the San Clemente pier at 10:01 p.m. on Saturday.
Barnes, whose deputies serve as the local police in areas covering a quarter of Orange County’s population, questions the constitutionality of the governor’s orders and says they will not respond to calls that are only about violations of them.
“The Governor’s latest health orders have created a significant amount of uncertainty in the community regarding the feasibility and constitutionality of enforcing modified stay-at-home orders,” Barnes said in a statement released around noon Friday.
“Let me be clear – this is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement,” he added. “Orange County Sheriff’s deputies will not be dispatched to, or respond to, calls for service to enforce compliance with face coverings, social gatherings, or stay-at-home orders only. Deputies will respond to calls for potential criminal behavior and for the protection of life or property.”
Police departments for some of Orange County’s largest cities are taking a mix of approaches. While departments differ on whether they will respond to calls about violations of curfew, face covering, and social gathering rules, there’s widespread agreement that the goal is to get voluntary compliance and not to issue citations.
Santa Ana, Irvine, and Costa Mesa police say they will respond to calls solely about health order violations, but will emphasize education over enforcement – with officers having the ability to issue citations but seldom if ever actually doing so. Their jurisdiction covers just under a quarter of Orange County’s population, about the same as the sheriff.
“We do respond to calls for service when people call, even regarding potential violations of the state order, but our goal has been – and will continue to be – education and voluntary compliance,” Santa Ana’s police spokesman, Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, told Voice of OC.
“Enforcement efforts are basically only a last resort,” he added. “We spend time trying to educate people about what the basic changes in the law are, and encourage them to be compliant and do the right thing. And most people are pretty receptive.”
Irvine police will continue to respond to calls about state order violations, while emergency calls will take a higher priority, said Sgt. Karie Davies, a spokeswoman for the department.
“We are still going to respond to people who feel the need to call us and say there’s been a violation, either at a business or with a person….we have seen an increase in those health order violations. And so what we already try to do is go out and talk to people and educate people…and try to get compliance.”
When it comes to the new curfew order, if people say others are gathering or having a party during the curfew hours, “we will go out and handle it appropriately,” Davies said, adding the department hasn’t issued a citation yet but it is an option for officers.
“Our goal is not to be heavy handed. Our goal is to get people to realize” there’s a major decrease in the spread of coronavirus if people wear masks, she said. Most of the city’s residents understand, she said, adding “enforcement for us is a last resort.”
During the curfew hours, “we’re not actively stopping people just so we can see where they’re going and what they’re doing,” Davies said. But if officers see gatherings during curfew like birthday parties or basketball game with large groups, officers would let people know they should stop, she said.
Costa Mesa police officials said in a statement they “will enforce the State’s new limited stay at home order to keep the community safe and healthy. We want to encourage our community to comply with the State’s order to ensure we are all doing our part to quell the spread of this virus.”
Anaheim police officials said their officers’ approach is similar to the sheriff’s position to not respond to calls solely about alleged violations of mask, gatherings, or curfew orders.
“We are hoping to gain the cooperation of our community through education. We’re not looking to respond to calls solely” for not wearing masks, social gatherings, and similar state health orders violations, said the Anaheim police spokesman, Sgt. Shane Carringer.
“I would never say that we would never enforce…But that’s not our goal. Our goal is to get community cooperation,” he added, saying the department has not issued any citations for violations of state health orders during the pandemic.
Fullerton Police Chief Bob Dunn says his department does respond to calls that are solely about about health order violations, but they’re not the highest priority and the focus – like other departments – is on education.
“We have yet to have someone not comply” once officers educate people, Dunn told Voice of OC in an interview Friday. “So we anticipate that will continue.”
Like officials at other police departments, he said officers will not be pulling anyone over simply for being on the road after curfew, pointing to the many exceptions in the curfew order.
Coronavirus hospitalizations are continuing to rise in Orange County, with 333 patients as of Friday, up from 183 people at the beginning of the month.
Cases also are continuing to rise, with about 1,100 new cases reported Friday, up from 538 daily cases on average for the past week.
Dr. Clayton Chau, who serves both as Orange County’s health officer and director of the county Health Care Agency, said this week the increasing cases are believed to mainly come from people gathering socially both in public and private.
Asked about Barnes’ statement on the curfew and mask orders, state officials say the new health orders are meant to provide options for local law enforcement if they need them.
“This order provides an important new tool for local officials & law enforcement personnel to use to protect public health and safety, should they need it,” said Brian Ferguson, a deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Local police often look to the District Attorney’s Office for guidance on whether new orders are enforceable. DA officials are reviewing the legality of the governor’s new orders and will have an answer by Monday, District Attorney Todd Spitzer told Voice of OC on Friday.
Barnes’ statement Friday echoes what he told county supervisors in May, when former OC health officer Nichole Quick issued a countywide mask order, which was later walked back by current health officer Dr. Clayton Chau after pushback from residents and Supervisors.
“We are not the mask police nor do I intend to be the mask police,” Barnes told supervisors at their May 26 meeting.
“So I know there is a ‘shall’ order. Our deputies always have … fallen back on education first to take appropriate measures,” Barnes said. “But we are not and have not dealt through these issues through enforcement. And I will direct my staff not to direct any enforcement towards the shall issue mask requirement.”
Newsom then stepped in and issued a statewide mask order in June.
In his statement Friday, Barnes encouraged local residents to wear face coverings and practice physically distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
“Orange County residents have been diligent over the last eight months in striking a balance between protecting ourselves from COVID-19 and doing what is necessary to continue to live our lives,” Barnes said.
“Collectively we must do everything we can to protect our friends, family and community. I continue to wear a face covering and practice social distancing. I encourage others to continue to do so, because it will prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Voice of OC reporter Spencer Custodio contributed to this article.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.