Santa Clara County will impose fines on businesses and individuals that violate health orders, following the lead of other Bay Area neighbors to enforce mask-wearing, social distancing and other rules aimed at stopping the spread of coronavirus.
The county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to adopt an ordinance that would allow a maximum $500 civil fine to be imposed for non-business violations and a $5,000 maximum for business violations. It goes into effect immediately.
Unlike some other counties, Santa Clara County’s rules allow for a grace period of 24 to 72 hours, during which people and businesses may work to “cure the violation” and report back to the county to avoid the ticket. Alleged violators may also appeal the fine, in writing, within 10 days.
“The whole framework around the ordinance is built around the conversation that’s occurring — it’s not an immediate imposition of any fines,” said County Counsel James Williams, likening the ordinance to a fix-it ticket. “It’s a dialogue that occurs there.”
Over the past few months, the District Attorney’s office has been deluged with thousands of complaints related to COVID-19 violations, Williams said. With police and law enforcement agents generally uninterested in enforcing the orders on the criminal side — which would involve arresting people and potential jail time — civil fines are meant to give the public health orders more teeth.
Santa Clara County isn’t the first in the Bay Area to use fines as a way to crack down on health order violators. Last week, San Mateo and Santa Cruz county officials passed a similar ordinance; before that, Napa and Marin did the same in late July.
Still, approval in Santa Clara came only after a lengthy debate over whether it could make health care providers liable for fines. A June 10 health order — now enforceable through the new fine structure — requires health care providers to test certain groups, including people with symptoms or who are high-risk.
Several health care professionals, including some from Stanford Health Care and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, called in during public comment to argue that their facilities ought not face fines if their inability to test came down to a shortage of reagents or swabs.
In a compromise, the board decided that specific agreements over testing targets with providers may supersede the order, giving providers more individualized standards for fulfilling the testing requirement. Supervisor Dave Cortese, who pushed for the amendment, said he agreed with civil enforcement on principle but wanted to make sure it was clear what the goalposts are.
“If what we’re looking for is testing, testing, testing, I don’t see how ambiguity is our friend,” Cortese said.
The ordinance came after Santa Clara County reported 740 new coronavirus cases Monday as it parsed through a backlog of data from the state. Over the past three weeks, the county’s seven-day case average has settled at about 250 cases, said Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody. Death counts have decreased since a late April peak, with an average of two weekly deaths, while hospitalizations have hovered between about 169 and 185 people since the start of August.
Still, she said, the average daily case rate indicates that community transmission is high, Cody said — meaning that masking, social distancing, and not gathering in groups remain as important as ever.
“The bottom line is that we are still seeing preventable deaths from COVID-19,” Cody said.
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Author: Fiona Kelliher