Yolo County residents who willfully violate county health orders may be fined

Anytime Fitness utilized signage and social distancing markers to operate under social distancing guidelines. Photo by Aaron Geerts/Winters Express

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Businesses and even homeowners and individuals in Yolo County who willfully violate health orders on face coverings and social distancing face administrative fines under an urgency ordinance unanimously passed by county supervisors on Tuesday.

The ordinance is aimed at what County Counsel Phil Pogledich described as “the tough 10 percent” of the community that persistently violate health orders aimed at limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Our starting point with businesses and organizations is education,” Pogledich told county supervisors on Tuesday. “It’s been that way for close to four months now, it will continue to be that way.

“But with any type of code compliance issue, whether it’s our zoning code or public health orders… you’ve always got a small number, they call it the tough 10 percent, of businesses and organizations or individuals that simply don’t want to come into compliance,” he said.

“It’s not convenient for them, it’s too expensive for them, there’s another reason or a host of reasons why they’re not coming into compliance. So it’s that tough 10 percent that this ordinance is targeted toward.”

Under the ordinance — enforcement of which will be largely complaint driven — code enforcement officers (including environmental health investigators and police officers) will be able to issue an immediate citation upon discovery of a violation.

The civil fines will vary based on the type of violation, including whether it is occurring in the course of commercial activity. The maximum fine amount for a violation is $10,000 per day, but an enforcement officer can also provide a grace period of up to 72 hours for correction of a violation before a fine becomes effective.

An appeal process will allow those cited to make their case before a hearing officer, and, ultimately a superior court judge.

And while the ordinance was drawn up with a focus on businesses like restaurants and bars that have persistently violated health orders by not requiring staff to wear face coverings or placing tables too close together, the ordinance can also be used for private gatherings, such as large house parties.

In the latter instances, the homeowner could be cited, Pogledich said. However, he added, “I don’t expect that will be the typical way in which this ordinance is used.”

Additionally, fines for non-commercial violations are lower, $25 to $500, depending on the severity of the violations, Pogledich said. 

As for an individual who flagrantly violates the health order requiring the use of face coverings in public, the ordinance can be used to issue citations, Pogledich said, but if the county decides to go down the road of “significant enforcement of the face covering order or other violations that are typically the result of individual conduct,” he would want to further examine whether the ordinance passed Tuesday would be the best tool.

“We’re starting to see a number of other jurisdictions, including I think four cities, mostly in Southern California, that have started to enforce face covering orders and if we go down that road, I’ll be taking a close look at how they’re doing it, if there’s an even better tool than an ordinance of this nature,” Pogledich said.

“So it’s unlikely that it would be employed for that specific purpose?” Supervisor Don Saylor asked.

Replied Pogledich: “I didn’t draft it for that purpose, but I put language in here that allows it to be used to police individual conduct.”

Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis expressed support for that.

“I think it’s important that we have this tool,” he said, “because the lack of the face masks is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus and we are at very high rates.”

But the ordinance was largely drawn up to deal with increasing complaints related to commercial activities and Pogledich laid out how it would be used in typical cases.

One scenario is a popular restaurant within one of Yolo County’s cities, regularly crowded before the pandemic and, to the concern of many, still crowded after restaurants were allowed to re-open with restrictions.

Few signs note the need for face coverings and social distancing. Use of face masks by staff is spotty and customers are at too many tables situated too close together.

Complaints to authorities from passers-by, diners and even staff have brought city code enforcement, city police and county environmental health officials to the site but nothing has changed.

Under the ordinance approved Tuesday, the consequences for that non-compliance will start to become expensive.

The county would issue a citation, imposing a $500 fine for too many tables close together and failure to enforce face coverings. The code enforcement officer might grant a grace period of 24 hours to fix the violations.

But the restaurant fails to comply the next day and the fine takes effect. With continued non-compliance, the fine doubles daily so it’s up to $3,500 by day five.

At some point the restaurant complies and reaches out to settle with the county, perhaps for a lesser fine and a promise of ongoing compliance. Mission accomplished.

Another scenario is a bar that was required to cease all operations.

The bar closes its doors to the public, but then directs staff to put the word out that private parties are allowed.

Neighbors report loud noise late one evening and local police arrive to find that while windows are covered and no patrons are visible, there are over 100 people at the bar, apparently celebrating a wedding.

Police issue a misdemeanor citation, but the next weekend, the bar hosts another large, private event.

County staff then follow up and issue a citation, documenting two events violating public health orders, and imposing fines of $10,000 per event, the maximum amount allowed for gravity of risk, prior misdemeanor citation, profit motive and lack of good faith.

The bar owner appeals the amount of the fine, asserting it should be only $500.

After a full hearing, a hearing officer provides a written decision upholding the $20,000 fine and awarding the county all hearing expenses. No further appeal to a court is filed and the county eventually records a lien to secure repayment through special assessment for nuisance abatement

With those sorts of scenarios in mind, county supervisors voted 5-0 on Tuesday to enact the urgency ordinance, which took effect immediately and affects both incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county.

The ordinance will not be the only tool available to enforce both state and local health orders. Cities and the county retain the ability to seek an immediate court order to shut a business down. Additionally, business licenses issued by the state or local government can be revoked and the matter can be pursued with misdemeanor prosecutions as well.

However, county officials said, “inform and educate” will remain the first and primary strategy that will be used going forward.

Local impact
Winters City John W. Donlevy, Jr. told the Express, in an email Tuesday afternoon, that since the City of Winters had essentially designated Yolo County Health as our Health Officer they will enforce their ordinance without drafting a separate one for Winters.

He said any local enforcement issue would be referenced to the County’s ordinance, and have the Yolo County Code Enforcement handle it.

Donlevy told the Express that Winters does not have any businesses who have been offenders and the Yolo County action should not be a big deal for local business owners.

“If a business became an issue, we would provide information and try and talk them into compliance versus some type of enforcement action,” Donlevy said. “The most prolific offenders have been but a handful in other communities.”

*Express staff writer Rodney Orosco contributed to this article.

The Winters Express is offering coverage related to the coronavirus pandemic free to readers as a community service. The work of our journalists to produce local coverage of the issues is, of course, not free. To support local journalism, please subscribe.

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