Violating Santa Clara County’s public health order already came with the risk of criminal prosecution. But as of last week, there’s another penalty that’s less severe but likely to become more common: fines of $500 for individuals and $5,000 for businesses.
Frustrated by the lack of compliance but hesitant to refer violators to the DA, the Board of Supervisors last week authorized an enforcement team to bring scofflaws in line with the county’s myriad public health mandates.
The ordinance stemmed from reports of numerous violations by not only restaurants and stores, but also nonprofit and private healthcare providers turning people away for Covid-19 tests and landlords flouting the local eviction moratorium by ousting tenants.
In a memo advocating for the policy, County Counsel James Williams stressed that those kinds of violations put the public at grave risk for infection, deepening the present crisis.
“Because Covid-19 spreads exponentially if risk reduction protocols are not strictly followed, any such violations could cause many preventable illnesses and deaths,” he argued. “These violations also jeopardize local social and economic wellbeing, increasing the potential for renewed curtailment of business operations, school closures, and activity restrictions. On the other hand, multiple scientific studies have confirmed that social distancing measures, the use of facial coverings, robust testing, and rapid contact tracing are effective at reducing transmission of Covid-19.”
Since the 10-member enforcement unit began pursuing leads late last week, it has already sent notices to three non-compliant businesses, officials said. Two corrected the issues; third still has time to dodge a fine by doing the same.
“All of our staff on the enforcement team are trained in regulatory compliance,” he said in a brief phone interview earlier this week. “So this is a natural extension of the work they were already doing, which is very collaborative.”
As with the food-service compliance program, Balliet said the goal of the pandemic enforcement unit is to bring businesses in line and, ideally, to avoid having to issue steep fines. If the county identifies a violation, it gives the subject up to 74 hours to fix the problem before resorting to a monetary penalty.
For now, the team will operate on a complaint-based basis, Balliet explained. Referrals come in from the public and other enforcement agencies, the staff reviews them and then determines which ones are worth a site visit to issue a notice.
The county working on putting together a database, Balliet said, and then the plan will be to share some information with the public. To incentivize compliance, however, the county plans to withhold information about violators if they address the underlying problem and avoid the fine, he added.
Criminal prosecution is still an option, of course—that’s inherent to public health orders. But at least there’s now some recourse between a misdemeanor and outright impunity.
“This doesn’t take away from criminal enforcement,” Balliet acknowledged. “I will just point out, though, that most businesses are compliant, or want to be compliant, and we appreciate that. These measures have more to do with those 10 to 15 percent of businesses that just don’t follow the order.”
The new fines put Santa Clara County in the ranks of several other Bay Area jurisdictions that began pursuing civil penalties last month.
Williams described civil enforcement as “another tool” in the fight against Covid.
“It is our hope that businesses will use the grace period to make the necessary corrections and avoid fines, but if they fail to do so, the penalties are significant,” he said in a news release announcing the fines. “The vast majority of businesses are playing by the rules and keeping our community’s wellbeing as their priority, but those that are not need to know that our community is serious about enforcement. We all have a responsibility to do our part and closely and consistently follow public health directives.”
There’s also money on the line for the county.
The enforcement policy will also help the county meet expectations of state health officials, who recently made clear that funding for local governments will be contingent on how effectively they enforce their own pandemic protocols.