Report: Sonoma Sheriff Reverses Stance, Will Enforce County Health Orders After All

A supermarket in Sonoma County.  (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Updated: Friday, May 29, at 4:18 p.m.

In a call with KQED, Sonoma County Sheriff-Coroner Mark Essick said he had "productive" conversations with Sonoma County Health Officer Sundari Mase and the Board of Supervisors, and said they'd agreed to share information and increase their communication.

Essick said his office would be enforcing the stay-at-home order "exactly as we have been," and evaluating enforcement on a case-by-case basis.

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In a Facebook post on Thursday afternoon, Sonoma County Sheriff-Coroner Mark Essick told residents he could no longer continue to enforce the county's shelter-in-place order without further explanation from county health officials.

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"It's been 10 weeks," he said. "Our hospitalizations are incredibly low in this county. The growth rate of the infection in this county is decreasing. And yet we have not seen a lot of movement and changes of the health order."

Back in March, when counties began to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Essick said Sonoma County did everything they were "supposed to do" — from issuing the shelter-in-place order and gathering personal protective equipment for staff, to encouraging residents to wear masks, sanitize and practice social distancing.

"Those things were really effective in Sonoma County, we have really crushed the curve here," Essick said. While he appreciates the guidance from county health officials, he believes it's "time to re-evaluate."

So far, Essick said there have only been 13 citations for violating the county's order and 19 warnings issued since it went into effect in March.

Earlier this month, the state accepted Sonoma County's variance attestation form — outlining the county's readiness to move beyond the state's schedule. Sonoma has since amended its public health order to allow for outdoor restaurants and summer camps to reopen.

Then, on Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health announced that counties who've moved further along in the process, like Sonoma, could begin reopening hair salons and places of worship — with modifications to health procedures. But Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the county is not currently expanding openings beyond that.

Essick said he's repeatedly asked the public health department for more information and transparency on why the county has not moved to a less restrictive system, despite its relatively low COVID-19 case count. But he said the health department has not provided the information he's asking for.

For example: Sonoma is currently reporting 42 hospitalizations. But Essick said health officials won't clarify if those people are currently being hospitalized or if that's the total number since the county began reporting them.

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Essick said he's asked Mase to provide that information, but "she won't answer that. And I think that itself speaks volumes."

"This lack of transparency and lack of engagement is incredibly disappointing at a time when all levels of government should be working together," he said in the post. Sonoma County has reported 530 total confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of May 27.

Essick said he's also been hearing concerns from residents who feel there's a disparity between which businesses get to reopen and which don't.

"When we see that kind of disparity where a health order is picking winners and losers, people get concerned about that," Essick said.

According to the Facebook post, the detention division of the sheriff's office will now "refuse the booking arrest of individuals whose sole booking charge is for a violation of the Sonoma County Public Health Order."

Other California county sheriffs have also refused to enforce stay-at-home orders, including in Riverside and Fresno County.

Essick said that since he made his social media post on Thursday, Mase has reached out to him to discuss the issue.

County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.