Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said Thursday that he will stop enforcing the county’s shelter-in-place order on June 1 because he believes the past and current orders put “significant restrictions on our freedoms.”
In a Facebook post, Essick said the county’s initial and subsequent health orders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic have been “far more restrictive” than guidelines in neighboring counties and in statewide orders.
He said the county — which has reported 531 coronavirus cases and 4 deaths as of Thursday — has dramatically increased its testing capacity which he said has shown the infection rate is “under control and decreasing.” County officials have conducted 23,362 coronavirus tests, according to county data.
“Yet we continue to see successive Public Health Orders that contain inconsistent restrictions on business and personal activities without explanation,” Essick wrote. “I can no longer in good conscience continue to enforce Sonoma County Public Health Orders, without explanation, that criminalize otherwise lawful business and personal behavior.”
The sheriff’s announcement came the same week that Sonoma County’s public health officer said she will hold off on allowing the reopening of some businesses because of a recent rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
County public health officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Wednesday that she will not allow in-store retail, salons and places of worship to reopen despite the county being permitted to do so because of a climb in new cases that were partially connected to workplace transmission.
County Supervisor Shirlee Zane told The Chronicle that she and her fellow supervisors were “mystified” at Essick’s decision to halt enforcement, and said he gave the board of supervisors just minutes notice via email before sharing his plan in a Facebook post.
“It’s really upsetting to those of us who have been working so hard on this,” Zane said. “I really want to ask him what motivated him to do this and why he didn’t talk to us. We need to talk about what is in the best interest of our community, bottom line. Elected officials, we have to compromise, we have to put our ego aside, and make decisions that are in the best interest of the people we represent.”
Zane said when officials are faced with a pandemic, one that has killed 100,000 people in the United States, city and law enforcement officials must enforce public health orders and “do everything we can to protect every single life.”
Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, told The Chronicle that she has been in contact with the county director of health services and Mase about the sheriff’s announcement.
“(Essick) has not been in contact with (Mase). He has not initiated contact with her requesting data or even asking for conversation,” Gorin said. “The board absolutely supports her orders and it’s disappointing that the sheriff is not supporting that order. I find that irresponsible.”
Gorin said supervisors plan to ask Essick to attend the board’s Tuesday meeting so they can have a, “public discussion and hopefully come to some level of agreement on the necessity to remain united to protect our public health.”
Starting on June 1, Essick said, he is directing all deputies to stop enforcing the county’s public health order. As part of these new directives, Essick said that is also directing the Sheriff Office’s Detention Division to refuse the booking arrest of people whose sole booking charge is for violating the county public health order.
Any violations that are reported to the Sheriff’s Office will be evaluated against California’s guidelines on a case-by-case basis. Essick said that deputies will focus on educating residents to mitigate the risk and spread of the coronavirus when they interact with people in the community.
In the parting sentences of his Facebook post addressed to county residents, Essick said that his decision to stop enforcement of the county public health order does not impact how other law enforcement agencies in Sonoma County choose to operate.
In a Facebook post Thursday night, Santa Rosa police Chief Rainer Navarro said he will, “continue to support the Health Officer, who is the subject matter expert, leading a safe, strategic and data driven process for reopening.”
Navarro said police will continue to respond to health order violations in collaboration with the city attorney, district attorney’s office and Mase in order to “ensure we are doing our part to make our community as safe as possible.”
“Our process is to, first and foremost, educate and inform our community of the health order. If there are ongoing violations, we will provide verbal and written warnings, and as a last resort, when necessary, enforce the law,” Navarro said. “We ask our community to continue voluntary compliance with the order.”