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Masks are mandatory for Californians up and down the state, as more and more people get sick with the novel Coronavirus and show up in hospitals.

But elected officials in Santa Ana, overseeing a city full of working-class residents who live in densely crowded areas and have no option but to work in public settings and risk exposure, are making that message more clear for locals.

City Council members at their Tuesday meeting unanimously agreed on enacting a local, mandatory mask order.

Its specific guidelines and provisions are expected to become clearer when it’s signed by the City Manager and released to the public either on Wednesday or later in the week. 

But there’s uncertainty over whether it will differ from state law in terms of its effectiveness in getting more people to mask up — in a city that some argue desperately needs these rules cemented locally.

And the term “mandatory” has been called into question when law enforcement agencies up and down the state, and in Orange County, continue to push back on punitive enforcement of the mask law — advocating instead for voluntary compliance.

And that was a message echoed by Santa Ana officials on Wednesday morning, after the council vote.

City spokesman Paul Eakins said the city has thus far tried to avoid punitive action in favor of education and voluntary compliance when it comes to people not abiding by public health orders aimed at stemming the virus’ spread:

“The new order will identify what specific consequences there could be — but it isn’t necessarily saying police should be out cracking down with fines. There are — there could be — consequences, if they refuse to abide by the rule. But we don’t want to do that.”

“Having the local order sends a clear message to people that this is a high priority for the City of Santa Ana,” he said, adding specific provisions of the mask order will become clear when it’s signed and released to the public.

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have surged over the recent winter months in Orange County. 

Especially in Santa Ana.

The mobile coronavirus testing site from Latino Health Access at Walker Elementary school in Santa Ana July 21, 2020. The mobile site goes to underserved neighborhoods throughout OC. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Read: Coronavirus Positivity Rates Increasing Throughout All of Orange County

“There are some neighborhoods in the city that have a (Coronavirus) positivity rate of 20 percent,” said current Councilman and newly-elected, incoming Mayor Vicente Sarmiento. “It is a very, very scary moment which only appears to be getting worse.”

He added the city has “a very vulnerable demographic by all counts.”

“We have many workers out in the public having to work, having to keep commerce going, then exposing themselves and going home and exposing their families,” Sarmiento said. “Many live in crowded areas …”

The action had vocal support from Mayor Miguel Pulido, and his vote for it sealed off a more than two-decade tenure in his council leadership position. 

The council’s move also came in the last moments of this current elected panel’s final legislative meeting, before a newly-elected, fresh-faced and generally younger City Council takes office. 

Pulido and other council members said that while there’s indeed already a statewide mask order, adopting a policy specific to Santa Ana would send a more serious message to those in the city’s popular public areas to mask up. 

“This is not the time to be tired,” Pulido said before the vote. “(With) all the damage it’s already caused our community, this is a time to get stronger, to rise up.”

Councilman David Penaloza on Wednesday morning said the mandate “definitely should have come a long time ago.”

He brought the issue up as early as July 7, though it lacked enough support by his colleagues at that meeting and didn’t take off. 

His fellow council members on Tuesday said it’s becoming clearer that he was right — that an even more dire situation waits on the horizon.

“I myself am at fault because I said, ‘OK, the state’s already doing it. Why do we need to do it?’” Pulido said, reflecting on Penaloza’s efforts in July. “Well, (now) we need to do it because we need to do everything we can.”

Law enforcement agencies across the state — Santa Ana included — have pushed back on enforcing “mandatory” mask orders with fines and instead emphasized education and voluntary compliance.

It was Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes who famously stated in May this year that his department wouldn’t be the “mask police.”

He took the same tone in a statement last month, in response to newer health orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom amid the virus’ second wave, saying: 

“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 called it a “matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement.”

“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.”

While the Sheriff’s Department isn’t enforcing pandemic health orders when it comes to individuals, officials say there’s a different approach when restaurants and other businesses violate health requirements.

When the Sheriff’s Department or county health officials get complaints about a business violating health orders, deputies typically will respond and ask the business to voluntarily comply, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the department. No citations have been issued, she said.

“What typically will happen is, that we will go alongside” county health officials responding to business violations, Braun added.

Last month, Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna told Voice of OC that his department does respond to calls for service regarding public health order compliance, but “enforcement efforts are basically only a last resort.” 

“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,” he added. 

On Wednesday morning, before the order was signed and put out, Bertagna said there was much uncertainty amongst the department over whether that approach would change with the city’s new order.

“Does this order change that? Yet to be determined,” he said. “We’re waiting for directions from the city.”

But again, he added: “For us, we’ve always been about education and trying to get voluntary compliance.”

Staff writer Nick Gerda contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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