On Tuesday, Aug. 11, the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors adopted an Urgency Ordinance authorizing fines for violating the COVID-19 Public Health Officer orders. The new enforcement efforts cover the Eviction Moratorium, the Testing Order, and even face-covering and social distancing rules.
This Urgency Ordinance is now in effect and establishes a civil enforcement program, including the authority to issue administrative fines if there is a violation. If the violation is not corrected by the end of the up to 72-hour grace period, they would have to pay the fines. Civil penalties for non-commercial violations are between $25 and $500, and between $250 and $5,000 for violations involving commercial activities.
“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,” said County Counsel James R. Williams in a press release. “The vast majority of businesses are playing by the rules…but those that are not need to know that our community is serious about enforcement.”
The County says they are still primarily focusing on education and outreach. The difference now is that the ordinance’s framework encourages voluntary compliance with Public Health Orders while also providing an additional tool to deter noncompliance if businesses and individuals fail to voluntarily comply.
“Our goal is to educate and not fine businesses, but fines will be issued if businesses refuse to comply with the laws protecting the public from COVID-19,” said Michael Balliet, Director of Environmental Health.
Since the health orders have been in place, the main means of enforcement have been via law enforcement coordinated through the District Attorney’s Office, “but their tools are not necessarily as well suited for more regulatory aspects of the more recent State and local health orders, such as the Risk Reduction Order’s requirements related to implementation of social distancing protocols,” says the ordinance.
The County of Santa Clara transitioned from a Shelter In Place approach to a Risk Reduction approach on July 13, however, COVID-19 numbers have been growing.
“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,” the ordinance states.
This Urgency Ordinance has become necessary due to the continued violations of County orders. According to the ordinance, County staff is receiving a substantial number of reports of violations, “including failure to follow face-covering, social distancing, and other risk-mitigation measures, resulting in a growing number of positive COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Many of these violations present a particularly severe and immediate threat to public health.”
For example, the County notes that there have been instances of businesses failing to timely report positive COVID-19 cases in their workplaces. Failing to report these COVID-19 cases undermines the County’s ability to effectively carry out contact tracing, says the ordinance.
Additionally, “County staff have received reports that several large healthcare facilities are violating the Testing Order by refusing to provide tests to individuals at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, or who have been exposed to confirmed cases of COVID-19.”
Lastly, even though the County Eviction Moratorium, which was first adopted on March 24, has been extended, the County is concerned about potential violations. Violations “would displace residents and small businesses that are struggling to survive the COVID-19 crisis,” says the ordinance.
This Ordinance has no impact to the County General Fund. Fines generated from enforcement efforts will be used to fund education and outreach and to contribute to the current and ongoing costs of the Public Health Order Enforcement Program. Existing County resources in areas such as Environmental Health and County Counsel will be redeployed to support implementation.
According to the County, violations jeopardize local social and economic wellbeing, increasing the potential for renewed constraints 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.”
Read the Urgency Ordinance on Santa Clara County’s website.