The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors in an Aug. 25 meeting picked apart a resolution that would have authorized punitive measures for enforcing state public health orders during the COVID-19 emergency. Then they failed to garner the votes to pass it.
The county has received several complaints from community members about local businesses not following state protocols by not wearing masks or holding large gatherings, among other violations.
What does current “enforcement” look like in Calaveras County?
After receiving a complaint, Health and Human Services sends a letter to the business notifying them of the complaint and providing informational resources for how to operate safely and in compliance with state directives, Deputy County Administrative Officer Christa Von Latta told the Enterprise in an email Tuesday.
No citations have been issued to date.
The goal of the resolution taken up by the board in the Aug. 25 meeting was to define specific enforcement protocols and assign roles to county staff to implement them.
Chairwoman Merita Callaway and District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi were the only two to support the resolution, but neither were happy with it.
One of a few main points of contention addressed in the meeting was that County Counsel would be the lead agency for enforcement, and would be granted authority to issue cease-and-desists to revoke business licenses in the most extreme cases.
Civil enforcement, which would involve taking businesses to court over violations, would be a costly and time-consuming option, said Callaway.
Callaway told the Enterprise Tuesday she has heard several complaints about a select few businesses along the Ebbetts Pass corridor not following state guidelines by hosting gatherings for concerts.
Code Compliance would've been the better enforcement agency, Callaway said in the meeting, since officers would be able to respond to complaints quickly by issuing notices of violation as they would with other issues like electrical hazards that could result in fining.
The other issue, which Garamendi voiced concern over, was that the county would not be able to act on complaints issued prior to the resolution passing.
He said not pursuing enforcement of non-compliant businesses would be unfair for those that have followed the rules and taken an economic hit for it, with specific reference to the Hotel Leger closing down while the Murphys Hotel stays open.
Supervisors argued back and forth on the particulars, with District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli stating that new complaints would come in after the resolution was passed anyway.
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills was concerned that verifying on a complaint-driven basis would incentivize businesses to call in on their competitors and, more generally, with staff capacity to enforce the resolution.
Tofanelli and Mills, along with Calaveras County District 5 Supervisor Benjamin Stopper, eventually voted against the resolution, which was put forth on a motion by Callaway and a second by Garamendi.
Early in the meeting, Stopper said he wouldn’t support enforcement through fining or revoking business licenses due to a lack of clarity from the governor on reopening businesses.
Three days after the meeting, the state released a new four-tiered system for determining how and when certain types of businesses can open depending on where their county falls on the list. That replaces the County Data Monitoring List, the state’s previous system.
As of Wednesday, Calaveras County was listed as having a “substantial” risk level, since it’s seen at least four to seven new cases per 100,000 residents daily.
That means only some non-essential indoor business operations, such as bars and concert venues, are required to be closed. Schools are closed for in-person instruction, but can open for in-person instruction if the county remains in this tier for two weeks.
“Substantial” is the second highest tier, or risk level, behind “widespread,” which would indicate that several non-essential indoor business operations should be closed.
Stopper told the Enterprise Monday that although he hasn’t had a chance to thoroughly review the state’s new tiered system, he opposes fining or litigating against non-compliant businesses when there’s no proof that they’ve spread COVID-19.
“There should be a clear path of proof that the person’s actions did something wrong,” he said.
Stricter enforcement could lead to more businesses “thumbing their nose” at the county and continuing unsafe practices, Stopper said, with reference to El Dorado County, where two non-compliant cafes opted to stay open even after the county rescinded their public health permits.
Stopper also said case data for Calaveras County shows that the novel coronavirus is mostly spreading from individuals traveling outside of the county for work or shopping, rather than from a local place of business.
Based on data compiled by the Calaveras Public Health Department through contact tracing, this is partially true, in that most transmission is occurring between family members in households, rather than businesses.
But household transmissions have been observed between family members that leave the county for work as well as those who don’t, leaving no “preponderance” of data to give a strong indication of whether visitors or commuters are the ones primarily infecting others, County Health Officer Dean Kelaita, MD, told the Enterprise in an email Tuesday.
Those “suspected” of getting infected from sources outside the county make up 24% of total cases, Kelaita said. The sources of infection for about 28% of cases are unknown, while the remaining 48% of cases have been linked back to individuals residing in the county.
Transmission in the workplace, typically between co-workers in a retail establishment or office setting, has also been identified, but less commonly, he said.
Thus far, businesses or sectors that have experienced an outbreak either occurred internally, or that spread to a member of the public, have “engaged in collaborative continuous quality improvement efforts with Calaveras Public Health.”
Kelaita added that, to date, the department has not identified outbreaks in any businesses or sectors that were “ignoring all state protocols. Local businesses have been good partners … in preventing COVID-19 transmission in an effort to stay open and do the right thing.”
Tuesday afternoon, the department reported 21 new cases of COVID-19, eight of which were linked to residents of Avalon Health Care San Andreas, a skilled nursing facility. Avalon reported Wednesday morning that five of its residents had died of COVID-19.
What are other counties doing to keep businesses accountable?
How California counties hold businesses accountable for violating state COVID-19 directives has varied greatly. Some Bay Area counties have levied fines for health order violations, such as not wearing a mask or gathering in large groups, per NBC Bay Area.
Rural counties in the Mother Lode, however, have predominantly opted to take an education-based approach, offering no enforcement “teeth” to ensure businesses follow the state’s rules.
Law enforcement leaders in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties have publicly opposed enforcing the directives.
Tuolumne County, in particular, has chosen to offer financial incentives of up to $2,000 for businesses that comply with state directives, rather than litigate or levy fines on those who don’t.
Its business education and compliance division, created in July, is focused on “reviewing, researching and understanding the (ever-changing) guidelines and health orders so we can go out and give the (relevant) information to businesses,” said Cori Allen, deputy director of the Department of Social Services, who is serving as the new division’s chief.
The division has authorized $26,548 of a $250,000 pot for reimbursements for 19 different businesses to offset costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchases. The funding, all from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, can also cover other business-specific needs to stay compliant, including umbrellas for outdoor seating, for instance, Allen said.
In cases where businesses are repeatedly not following directives, county staff conduct site visits, send letters to the business and, if deemed necessary, loop the relevant state regulatory agency in for enforcement, but that’s been an infrequent occurrence.
Regarding the potential for Calaveras County to launch a similar initiative, about $4.9 million in CARES funding is expected to be received piecemeal, but most of it will likely be used to reimburse the county’s public safety payroll to offset General Fund costs due to the pandemic between March and December, Callaway said.
A laundry list of expenses includes Zoom accounts, reimbursed costs for inmates that can’t be transferred from county jails to a state facility, cleaning offices, installing filters on HVAC unit vents at county facilities, providing staff equipment to be able to work from home, staff time and more, Callaway said.
She said about 15 county employees have caught COVID-19.
So far, the board has allocated $200,000 of the CARES funding for learning hubs for children of essential workers that work for the county, school districts or in the hospital/healthcare system.
Amador County’s Environmental Health Department has been responsible for fielding complaints and working with businesses to come into compliance, according to Diana Evensen, public information officer with the county’s public health department.
Evensen said she didn’t know of a resolution that has come before the board of supervisors to establish formal enforcement procedures, but added that the Amador County Chamber of Commerce has helped secure PPE for area businesses.