Neglecting to wear a mask in public or failing to socially distance could soon carry a hefty fine of up to $500 in Santa Clara County, according to a new proposal cracking down on those who violate COVID-19 public health orders.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is set to vote Tuesday, Aug. 11, on whether to empower law enforcement officials and other county employees to issue civil penalties to residents who fail to comply with mandatory public health restrictions. If approved, the move would greatly expand the power of the county to impose fines on residents and businesses that violate the health regulations, including failing to wear face coverings outside of the home.
County officials say they have received reports of a "substantial" number of violations in recent months, which has contributed to a spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Yet to date, the strategy to deal with these violators -- referring those complaints to the district attorney's office -- was never really suited for the so-called "risk reduction" orders that are necessary to make reopening businesses and other activities safe.
"The success of these orders -- and the county's ability to avoid a return to shelter-in-place -- relies in part on effective and efficient enforcement," according to a county staff report.
Since the county's public health restrictions loosened on July 13, there has been a nearly 43% jump in cases, from 7,537 on July 13 to 10,767 as of Aug. 2. Hospitalizations during that time also increased from 144 to 181 during the same period.
"Because COVID-19 spreads exponentially if risk reduction protocols are not strictly followed, any such violations could cause many preventable illnesses and deaths," county officials said. "These violations also jeopardize local social and economic well being, increasing the potential for renewed curtailment of business operations, school closures and activity restrictions."
Under the proposed rules, individuals could face penalties ranging from $25 to $500, depending on the gravity of the violation, repeat offenses and circumstances, according to the draft resolution. Businesses, on the other hand, could face steeper penalties ranging from $250 to $5,000.
Businesses are under increased scrutiny, in part, because of serious violations reported to date. County officials say there are "numerous" instances of businesses flouting the rules for reporting positive cases in the workplace -- hindering the ability to do contact tracing -- and several health care facilities have refused to provide tests for people at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19.
Several counties in the Bay Area, including San Mateo and Contra Costa counties, have recently passed similar ordinances imposing fines on health order violators, but there are some key differences in the proposed Santa Clara County health order. The ordinance would allow for a "grace period" in the event that the violation can be remedied, giving the person or business who ran afoul with the rules between 24 and 72 hours to fix the problem.
The grace period is not mandatory and is subject to discretion, but would be considered the "default" option, according to the county staff report, and would allow most residents and businesses to avoid paying a fine. No such grace period exists in the San Mateo County ordinance, but Santa Clara officials say the softer touch is consistent with its focus on education and outreach over enforcement.