County creates fine structure, task force for shelter violations

07/29/2020

As coronavirus cases continue to rise, Marin is rolling out a new program for the enforcement of public health orders, which primarily mandate mask wearing and determine which and how businesses can operate. Under pressure from the state, county supervisors last Tuesday approved an urgency ordinance that establishes a new fining structure and a task force that will tackle business compliance.

After Marin was put on the state watch list due to increased transmission at the tail end of June, it started retightening its shelter order. The county rolled back allowances for indoor dining, hair salons, barber shops, malls and offices for non-essential businesses. Short-term rentals had prepared to re-open but never did so after the county reversed its position.

All provisions have been enforceable, and until now violations have constituted misdemeanor offenses and were punishable with fines up to $1,000. Yet deputies rarely used those measures; last week, county counsel told supervisors that there was a need to develop a lighter approach. “While these [existing] enforcement mechanisms can be effective, they may be too slow, resource-intensive, overly punitive, and/or lack local control,” county counsel wrote. 

In unincorporated Marin, there have been no arrests due to shelter order violations, though 1,715 parking violations, a fine of $100, were issued between April and May while parks and open spaces were closed. 

Alongside the new ordinance, Marin will soon release a tier structure for the fines, which are considered civil penalties much like parking tickets. Fines for businesses will range from a minimum of $250 up to $10,000. For individuals, fines will range between $25 and $500. The tiers will be based on the nature of the infraction and the number of offenses.

Previously, the sheriff’s office was solely responsible for enforcing the shelter order; now, business enforcement will be handled by a task force that includes representatives from the county’s code enforcement, environmental health services divisions and county counsel. Deputies and police officers will continue to enforce individual compliance with physical distancing requirements, which primarily include mask wearing and not convening in large groups.

The task force will respond based on complaints, and there is a new email address—SIPviolation@marincounty.org—for reporting violations. Around 60 complaints a day have been made to the new email address since it launched on July 16.

County counsel stated last week that education will continue to be the first response to violations. Enforcers can choose to allow a grace period of up to 72 hours for a violation to be abated before issuing fines.

The state has put pressure on counties to step up enforcement. Governor Gavin Newsom has threatened to withhold federal CARES Act stimulus allocations to local governments not following recommended guidelines, including local public health orders. Marin is expected to receive $26.5 million from that act for its emergency response efforts since March. 

District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni told the Light last week that compliance on the coast has been good in general, but, he added, “There are still areas of the economy that are confused or don’t understand the rules, and some of that has to do with visitors not practicing safe distancing and masking.” The largest number of complaints, he said, have stemmed from the continued operation of short-term rentals.

“From the perspective of public health, it’s really important that we work hard. If we do the right thing, we can have more success and the economy can open up and kids can go back to school,” Supervisor Rodoni said.

Commenters last Tuesday expressed concern about the racial equity of the enforcement effort. Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer, responded that implementing the public health orders in a way that was not disproportionately affecting one community over another was a clear priority.

“We are committed, at least from my perspective, [to] recognizing that systemic racism is also a public health harm and trying to balance those elements of public health under a single frame of enforcement,” he said. Yet he added, “[Enforcement] is the most important way to strengthen [our] policies, especially when we see that the virus is so difficult to control. We are seeing surges across the state and in our own communities.”

In Marin, 8.5 percent of the tests conducted are coming back positive as averaged over the past 14 days, a metric that has continued to trend upward since a low in mid-May. Along with the majority of California, Marin remains on the state’s watch list, which has frozen any further opening of industry or schools until it can meet certain thresholds. The state must see no more than 100 positive cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Marin is currently averaging 245 positive cases.

Since the start of the pandemic there have been 36 cases across West Marin. The only town for which the county is offering a total count is Point Reyes Station, which has seen 16 cases since March; the other towns have had fewer than 10 cases. There are still fewer than 10 active infections across the entire coast, though the county would not share the total.