A California County thought fining businesses that broke the rules would help stop COVID

San Jose Mercury News:

  • In the year since the Bay Area issued the nation’s first public health order to fight the pandemic … the county has fined nearly 400 business owners a whopping total of $4.9 MILLION in civil penalties
  • The rest of the counties in the region have fined just 68 businesses combined for $82,000 total.
  • The cited offenses ranged from serious, like failing to enforce mask-wearing or operating indoors when prohibited, to perplexingly minor, such as playing televisions and “non-ambient music” — no-no’s that don’t merit fines anywhere else in the region.
  • “They’ve just given carte blanche authority to these county employees who got moved over to COVID police,” said Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post in Los Altos.
  • Santa Clara County covid infection and death rates are no better than the surrounding counties.

When Sara Dubon opened her first floral shop in the midst of the pandemic, she knew it might be financially risky. But she didn’t anticipate the risk from Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 prevention squad, who hit her with a $500 fine without any written warning after just one month.

The reason? No posted notice about the six-person capacity limit at her tiny storefront in San Jose’s Westfield Oakridge mall.

“I should have no excuse, but I’ve never had a store before and I honestly just didn’t know I could get fined for that,” Dubon said, noting she followed county instructions for all other safety signage and protocols but missed that one. “When a business is doing well, maybe $500 doesn’t seem like much. But for me, that’s a lot of money.”

She has plenty of company among businesses that learned the hard way how Santa Clara County’s public health enforcers — unlike their counterparts in other counties — are almost as relentless as the coronavirus itself in searching out prey.

In the year since the Bay Area issued the nation’s first public health order to fight the pandemic, with businesses struggling from a seemingly endless series of capacity restrictions and forced closings, the county has fined nearly 400 business owners like Dubon a whopping total of $4.9 million in civil penalties for breaching coronavirus restrictions.

In contrast, six other Bay Area counties that issue fines for similar infractions have collected a combined $82,000 from 68 businesses in all, according to an analysis of data obtained by this news organization.

Interviews with business owners as well as a survey of about half of California’s 58 counties reveal that Santa Clara County has for months deployed an exceptionally heavy enforcement hand.

“They’ve just given carte blanche authority to these county employees who got moved over to COVID police,” said Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post in Los Altos, which has accumulated $40,000 in fines from the county. “At this point, they’re literally just beating down small businesses that have already been decimated by the poor leadership of this county and the state.”

Fined businesses include large chain retailers like Target and AT&T, churches, gyms, illicit nightclubs, and mom-and-pop salons and restaurants. The cited offenses ranged from serious, like failing to enforce mask-wearing or operating indoors when prohibited, to perplexingly minor, such as playing televisions and “non-ambient music” — no-no’s that don’t merit fines anywhere else in the region.

In the cases of the county’s two highest offenders — The Calvary Chapel, which racked up $2 million in fines and is locked in an ongoing legal battle with the county, and the California Ripped Fitness gym, which was hit for almost $1 million — the leaders of both openly flouted the laws, allowing indoor worship services and indoor exercise even though those activities were banned.

But that’s only a small part of the story of Santa Clara County’s strict enforcement system.

The Bay Area News Group’s analysis of fines data found:

  • Santa Clara County businesses are at least 13 times more likely to get slapped with a fine than those in any other Bay Area county.
  • Even excluding the county’s two biggest outlying offenders, the total amount of fines issued by Santa Clara County is 50 times more than the next highest county, San Mateo.
  • Excluding the same church and gym, the median fine in Santa Clara County was $4,977, compared to $1,587 in San Mateo County and $883 in Contra Costa County.
  • In Santa Clara County, at least 95 businesses have received fines totaling more than $5,000.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams insists his county has taken a “very measured approach.”

“I think that the real question is, why up and down the state we have real and serious health and safety rules in the midst of a pandemic and yet they’re getting less enforcement than carpool lane violations or failure to stop at a stop sign or all sorts of other infractions,” Williams said. “It’s a matter of safety, it’s a matter of equity and there have to be real consequences attached to what are actual crimes here.”

But it seems no other California county defines the consequences with anything close to Santa Clara County’s zeal.

Creating a new method of enforcement

Intent on promoting safety from the deadly virus, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Marin, Santa Cruz, Napa and Sonoma counties adopted laws last summer authorizing public health officers to levy civil fines against businesses and individuals that violate their orders. Across California, only a few other counties such as Los Angeles and Santa Barbara did the same.

……

The punishment has to fit the crime’

Compared to Santa Clara County, the other Bay Area jurisdictions that created new public health enforcement mechanisms have exercised a much lighter hand. Contra Costa, Santa Cruz, Marin and San Mateo counties primarily have fined businesses operating indoors when prohibited, restaurants defying the outdoor dining ban and those failing to abide by social distancing and capacity requirements.

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Meanwhile, Santa Clara County’s covid infection and death rates are no better than the other counties in the Bay Area with far less draconian enforcement practices.

COMPANION STORY: The Cats restaurant fined $77,500 for breaking COVID rules, allegedly offering ‘adult entertainment’

More at The San Jose Mercury News

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