Last week in an open letter to Sonoma County residents, published on Facebook, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick announced that his department would no longer enforce the county’s shelter-in-place order.
“Effective June 1, 2020, I am directing all Sheriff’s Office staff to discontinue the enforcement of the Sonoma County Public Health Orders issued by the Sonoma County Public Health Department and the Public Health Officer. Reports of violations, when brought to our attention, will be evaluated against the California State guidelines on a case-by-case basis. Where appropriate, the Sheriff’s Office will use public interactions as an opportunity to educate people on how to mitigate the risk and spread of the COVID-19 infection. Pursuant to this shift in policy, I am directing the Sheriff’s Office Detention Division to refuse the booking arrest of individuals whose sole booking charge is for a violation of the Sonoma County Public Health Order.”
The comment section to his post quickly became a homegrown version of the national culture war over the response to COVID-19. Many of the commenters cheered the sheriff’s action as striking a blow for fundamental freedoms, while others were shocked by his public undermining of the county’s Public Health Officer during a pandemic which has claimed 100,000 lives nationally, five in Sonoma County.
County officials met with the sheriff on Friday and mistakenly thought that he had agreed to enforce the public health order. Alas, no. Essick told a reporter from another newspaper at the end of the day "I'm not following the fucking health order."
On June 2, the county released a joint statement in which all parties agreed to play nice, but the sheriff's essential position--that he would take a case-by-case educational approach rather than a punitive one -- seemed unchanged.
Below we reprint several announcements: the most recent joint statement, as well as Sheriff Essick’s original announcement and a response from 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, both published on Facebook.
Joint Statement from Susan Gorin, Chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and Mark Essick, Sonoma County Sheriff/Coroner
Together, we are experiencing something not seen in a century – a pandemic that has required the lockdown of our communities, our gathering centers and much of our economy. Today, we are faced with the daunting task of how best to phase in the reopening of our communities, while respecting the fact that the challenges faced by each and every one of us is unique.
Sonoma County is well-positioned with a bright and committed leadership team, each of whom brings unique perspective and issue-area knowledge to the table. Just as in other emergencies we have faced in recent years, we know that transparency and working together are key to successfully navigating such challenges.
Though we have been extremely successful at “flattening the curve” in Sonoma County due to an early, aggressive shelter-in-place order, we are certainly not out of the woods yet. We have lost four lives. We know that the impact on the Latinx community, the elderly, and those with existing health challenges has been far greater than the rest of the population. It is incumbent on each of us to take measures that protect everyone in our community.
As in any complex situation, there are additional threats that must be considered – including public safety issues that arise out of a prolonged economic shutdown. We do not yet know the full impact on mental health, economic distress, extended family support, and child abuse. Law enforcement has already seen a marked increase in attempted suicides, domestic violence and child endangerment. These impacts must factor into our decision-making process and policy priorities as well.
We will convene a Sonoma County Economic Recovery Taskforce (SCERT) focused on shifting our County from a broad, stay-at-home model that is based on essential/non-essential activity, to a risk-based model that weighs all available data. The Board of Supervisors, Department of Health Services and Economic Development Board has begun this work.
The Board of Supervisors and the Public Health Officer have been clear that the goal is to align Sonoma County’s Shelter in Place Order with State Guidelines – in content and timeline. Last week, Sonoma County experienced a surge in COVID-19 positive cases and hospitalizations that delayed that process.
This is a new week, and brings us the renewed opportunity to transition towards a risk-based approach.
But we recognize that County leadership cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. The County acknowledges that it is critical to have a diverse array of leaders around the virtual table in order to carry this essential work forward. In a coordinated effort aimed at facilitating a safe economy and society in the pandemic era, we will include voices from small business, labor, law enforcement, Latinx community, tourism, agriculture, personal services, and cities to ensure that we are able to move forward in unison. Under such a transparent and open process, Sheriff Essick is committed to enforcing health orders.
The existing orders issued by the Health Officer to delay this phase of re-opening until Monday, June 8 remain in effect. As Sheriff Essick recently announced, the Sheriff’s Office will – as it has since the inception of the order – continue to use its discretion to emphasize education over punitive action as we create a path forward together in an ever-changing environment. Perhaps now more than ever, we must count on each other to take personal responsibility to use face coverings, practice social distancing and stay at home when possible during this phased-in transition. Everyone in the community is responsible for keeping our County safe and strong during this pandemic. We look forward to working together to achieve transparent decision-making processes; data-driven directives; thoughtful enforcement; and collaborative, cross-sector leadership.
For more information about COVID-19 please visit SoCoEmergency.org. Residents may also call 2-1-1 or text their zip code to 898-211 in order to text with a 2-1-1 operator.
Letter to Sonoma County Residents
By Mark Essick
I am writing to you as your elected Sonoma County Sheriff-Coroner. Over the last few weeks, I have heard from many people expressing concern with the perceived overreach of the Sonoma County Public Health Orders and their inconsistencies with our neighboring counties and Governor Newsom’s Public Health orders. I have consistently heard the message that Sonoma County’s Public Health Orders are far more restrictive than the Governor’s Order’s despite the fact that our COVID-19 infection rate is low compared to other counties. With over 23,000 tests conducted, Sonoma County has seen a declining rate of positive tests, from 3% three weeks ago to 2.2% today. As a community we have experienced 4 deaths; I do not want to minimize this fact as any loss of life is tragic and sad.
The first Public Health Order and subsequent Public Health Orders have placed significant restrictions on our freedoms we were not accustomed to in a free society. Most people complied with the Health Orders because they believed, as did I, that the Health Orders were the best solution to the unknown and potentially dangerous situation we were facing with COVID-19.
Over the last 10 weeks we have learned a lot and made significant progress. The curve has been flattened; hospitals were not overrun with patients; we have dramatically increased testing which verified the infection rate in Sonoma County is under control and decreasing. Yet we continue to see successive Public Health Orders that contain inconsistent restrictions on business and personal activities without explanation. Based on what we have learned, now is the time to move to a risk-based system and move beyond blanket orders that are crushing our community. Simple universal measures can be taken to protect the vulnerable among us and to slow the spread of COVID-19 within Sonoma County. Understanding your risk of infection and consulting with your doctor or health care provider on what prevention measures are best for you is a personal responsibility each of us must take.
Over the last several weeks, I have asked for more information and transparency from our Public Health Department and our Public Health Officer to explain why, with such a low infection rate, we have not moved to a less restrictive, risk based system. I firmly believe the public must be kept informed so we can develop effective public policy and our elected officials can make informed, evidence based decisions, balancing risk against the catastrophic impacts of the Shelter in Place order on our community. Unfortunately, the Public Health Department and the Public Health Officer have ignored my requests and the requests of the media to provide desperately needed information. This lack of transparency and lack of engagement is incredibly disappointing at a time when all levels of government should be working together.
As your elected Sheriff, 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. Effective June 1, 2020 I am directing all Sheriff’s Office staff to discontinue the enforcement of the Sonoma County Public Health Orders issued by the Sonoma County Public Health Department and the Public Health Officer. Reports of violations, when brought to our attention, will be evaluated against the California State guidelines on a case-by-case basis. Where appropriate, the Sheriff’s Office will use public interactions as an opportunity to educate people on how to mitigate the risk and spread of the COVID-19 infection. Pursuant to this shift in policy, I am directing the Sheriff’s Office Detention Division to refuse the booking arrest of individuals whose sole booking charge is for a violation of the Sonoma County Public Health Order. It is important to understand my decision does not affect enforcement policy or enforcement decisions by other law enforcement or regulatory agencies in Sonoma County; it applies to Sheriff’s Office operations in the jurisdictions we serve.
As an organization, the Sheriff’s Office has rapidly adapted with new operating procedures and protective measures to meet the health needs of the public, our employees and their families. The Sheriff’s Office staff will continue to utilize PPE (personal protective equipment) and other protective measures aligned with California State guidelines. Our detention division has worked tirelessly to prevent COVID-19 from infiltrating our jail, keeping our inmates safe and healthy. Those in law enforcement have educated themselves on these complex and ever changing Sonoma County Public Health Orders. They have exhibited compassion and discretion while interacting with members of the public, assisting those who are unsure or confused on what they can or cannot do under the Sonoma County Public Health Orders. As always, our team of over 650 men and women has impressed me with their commitment and dedication to helping the people of Sonoma County through difficult situations. As your Sheriff, I have been incredibly proud of their efforts and I hope you are too.
Response by 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins
Let me start by stating the obvious: there is no bluebook for how to be an effective leader in a pandemic. (Although, come to think of it, maybe someone needs to write a “Pandemic Leadership for Dummies” book and circulate it in D.C.)
I’m not perfect. No one is. I make mistakes, same as anybody. I hope that I will always learn from my mistakes, that I never become too thin-skinned or thick-skinned to receive criticism, that I am able to feel out the difference between a destructive vocal minority and the true will of the people for the true benefit of the people, and fight always for the latter.
With all that said, I’m extremely disappointed today. I’m disappointed not only in the Sheriff’s refusal to enforce the public health order going forward —but also the manner in which his decision was made and executed. The Board of Supervisors, which oversees the Sheriff’s budget as well as the Department of Health Services, received an email at the same time the Sheriff publicly posted his unwillingness to enforce the Public Health Order. At the time, I had no idea the Sheriff was even debating whether to enforce the health order. If he had concerns, I for one would have loved to hear them directly from him, so that we could discuss how to address those concerns going forward. (And yes, I did talk to him earlier tonight before writing this public response to his public letter.)
While there is no guide to pandemic era leadership, there are some things that are pretty clearly a bad idea. These include purposefully sowing fear and confusion in the community, pointedly undermining the vested authority of other officials, and creating counterproductive divisiveness in government — without at least first giving collaboration a try.
The Sheriff’s action was three for three. Hearing from the top elected law enforcement official that he is not going to enforce the law generated immediate confusion and fear in the community. Publicly refusing to follow our Public Health Officer’s directives undermines her authority to take urgent actions needed to protect public health. And I still do not fundamentally understand why the Sheriff didn’t pick up the phone and give the Supervisors a call before taking such a drastic public action. Why work apart, when we could work together?
Unfortunately, the Sheriff’s actions come at a point in time that is critical for the public health of our community. Our percentage of cases attributed to community spread has increased recently and is hovering around 24-25%. We currently have 52 people in the ICU, with only 15 more ICU beds available. We have only received a handful of treatment courses of remdesivir, the drug used to treat very ill patients, and we are awaiting additional doses from the state. Our case rate is double what it was two weeks ago. We had 60 people using our Alternate Care Site over the weekend for quarantine purposes, the most we’ve had to date.
I also wonder — what do the Sheriff’s actions signal to the Latinx community? Do they feel as if their health matters? Positive cases continue to climb dramatically within the Latinx population. White people comprise nearly ⅔ of our population in Sonoma County, yet only 24% of positive cases. Latinx people comprise 27% of our population, and 70% of cases (up from 59% just two weeks ago). Staggeringly, 95% of all children who are positive for COVID-19 are Latinx.
And right now, with a summertime surge in out-of-area visitors, many of our rural town residents are already anxious and edgy. I represent a district that spans from Moorland to The Sea Ranch. In between those communities are dozens of small towns that depend entirely on the Sheriff for law enforcement response. Over Memorial Day weekend I received reports from essential employees who shared that unmasked customers, when asked to don a mask, *purposefully coughed on* the employee. I saw on social media a report of an unmasked person in a parking lot *spitting* on the mask of someone who questioned their lack of a mask. Entitlement is contributing to vile, selfish behavior that threatens the health of our front-line workers. Some locals feel as if West County has truly become “the Wild West,” and they fear for their own health and well-being.
Given all of this, I ask: is now the right time to signal to the community that local public health directives don’t matter? That we are letting up on law enforcement?
Finally, I want to acknowledge that the California Department of Public Health has already taken note of the Sheriff’s actions. His decision may have earned us a spot on CDPH’s “Watch List,” which could prohibit us from moving further along in the reopening process. In other words, in an attempt to take a stand for “freedom”... it may sink further out of our reach. This action may make reopening *more* difficult, not less. (And incidentally, while the Sheriff says he will follow state orders, the state specifically acknowledges the authority of local county Public Health Officers to enact more stringent rules based on local data. So ignoring local orders is not really following the state orders.)
Do our public health orders need improvement? Do we need to do a better job of communicating what the current circumstances are, and why these health orders exist? Absolutely. And I will continue to fight for real-time data, for transparency around decision making, and for risk based, science-based approaches to public health orders and guidelines. But the best way to achieve those objectives is to work with and under the expertise of our epidemiologist, Dr. Mase. Not to take her orders and throw them out.
Thank you to the Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and Petaluma police chiefs and DA Jill Ravitch for standing in solidarity with Dr. Mase. We are lucky to have someone with Dr. Mase’s expertise, academic knowledge, and compassion making extraordinarily difficult decisions for — and with — our community.