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September 22, 2020

Santa Clara County forms Covid-19 enforcement team

Violators could be fined $500

By Barry Holtzclaw

In an effort to regain control of the Covid-19 pandemic, Santa Clara County supervisors Aug. 11 voted unanimously to create a new tool for a group of enforcers by using a combination of warnings and fines rather than criminal penalties.

The new ordinance “is critical to deal with the significant volume of complaints,” County Counsel James Williams told the supervisors.

“It provides a practical alternative to using the criminal courts system,” Supervisor Joe Simitian explained. “It is a little more flexible and less punitive.”

Under the new ordinance, designated public health enforcement officers—including any sworn peace officer, county employee, or other individual named by the county health officer—will enforce public health orders by issuing notices and imposing administrative fines of up to $500 for individuals and $5,000 for businesses.

The fines will be imposed if “responsible parties” fail to abate violations within a grace period of up to 72 hours from the issuance of the notice.

The first group of 32 enforcers are scheduled to hit the streets next Monday, supervisors were told earlier this week. Their target areas are East San Jose, South County, downtown San Jose, Little Saigon, downtown Mountain View and Sunnyvale.

Under the ordinance approved this week, civil penalties for non-commercial violations in Santa Clara County (not associated with a business or business transaction) are between $25 and $500, and between $250 and $5,000 for violations involving commercial activities (associated with a business or business transaction).

The move shifts enforcement away from police—who strained at being pulled away from battling crime for Covid-19 mask enforcement—and towards public information and civil fines enforced by a broader range of civil enforcers.

County officials said they also hope that “the grace period provision will allow most entities to avoid any fines by providing evidence of promptly correcting the violation.”

“A grace period would be the default, and it is also consistent with the county’s broader efforts focusing on education and outreach that have been previously approved by the board,” county staff wrote in a memo about the new policy.

The county’s Emergency Operations Center will establish a Community and Business Engagement Branch (CBEB) with three goals:

  1. To initiate robust community and business outreach and engagement through coordination with community-based organizations to educate businesses and the community on Public Health Orders
  2. To monitor and assist voluntary compliance with health orders after receiving reports of violations
  3. To refer violations impacting public health, safety and welfare to the County Counsel’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office “when efforts at voluntary compliance prove ineffective.”

Generally, this new branch will proactively contact businesses and individuals in an effort to obtain voluntary compliance with coronavirus public health orders through education before issuing a notice of violation under the urgency ordinance.

County staff said most notices of violation to businesses will include a grace period that provides an opportunity to voluntarily comply with the health orders before the applicable fine becomes effective.

“Only in limited circumstances (e.g., when there is a particularly severe and immediate threat to public health, or when a business is a repeat offender) will no grace period be provided,” the staff reported.

One of the first assignments of the CBEB, in late August, will be implementing a centralized complaint management system to better coordinate compliance and enforcement efforts across multiple county departments, including the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.

It is hoped that this system will help facilitate rapid response to complaints.

The ordinance also establishes an administrative appeals process before the Office of the County Hearing Officer that allows responsible parties to contest that they committed a violation and/or the amount of the administrative fine levied against them.

This appeals process allows individuals to present testimony and written evidence. All final orders of the county hearing officer will be appealable to Superior Court.

“The civil enforcement system established by the urgency ordinance is intended to supplement all other enforcement proceedings authorized by local, state, or federal law,” according to county officials. “It does not alter or diminish the authority of the sheriff, the county counsel, or the district attorney to address any such violations.”

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