As COVID-19 cases surged and California “re-dimmed,” the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) began stepping up COVID-19 health orders enforcement using a task force of 10 different government agencies. Now, many counties, who passed COVID-19-related urgency ordinances establishing administrative fines for violations of public health orders, are stepping up their own enforcement.
While these county ordinances apply to non-compliant individuals (for example, those who refuse to wear face coverings), enforcement efforts seem to focus on business violations. Counties that have adopted ordinances now in effect include, but are not limited to:
- Contra Costa (effective July 28, 2020)
- Marin (effective July 21, 2020)
- Mendocino (effective March 31, 2020)
- Napa (effective July 14, 2020)
- San Mateo (effective August 4, 2020)
- Santa Clara (effective August 11, 2020)
- Sonoma (effective August 6, 2020)
- Yolo (effective July 7, 2020)
Each ordinance has its own administrative penalty structure. In general, the penalties for violating local and state public health orders range from $250 all the way up to $10,000 for commercial violations. Some counties allow for a “notice of violation” before a “notice of fine” is issued, but enforcement officers may, within their discretion, determine that, in some circumstances, a notice of violation may be unnecessary or ineffective.
It’s important to keep in mind that, in general, businesses are not only responsible for their own violations, but also for allowing such violations to occur. So, while an individual may be subject to a citation for refusing to wear a face covering, the business may also receive a citation for allowing such a violation.
Some counties, such as Marin and Sonoma, have set up dedicated email addresses and/or hotlines where members of public can report violations and lodge complaints.
Santa Clara County recently announced that within only a few days of their ordinance’s adoption, it issued the first violation notices against three businesses that were operating in violation of the orders. The violation notices informed the businesses of the proposed fines (ranging from $250 to $5,000 per daily violation) and gave them a grace period to make corrections to avoid paying the fines. Two of the three businesses made the necessary corrections and thus will no longer face fines. The third business is still within the grace period (ranging from 24 to 72 hours) to take corrective action to avoid the fine.
Many counties consider their local ordinances to supplement other enforcement measures that were already in place with their shelter-in-place/other local health orders, which may contain provisions subjecting violators to fines and other punishment. Some local health departments have been very active in the investigations and enforcement process since the earlier stages of the pandemic.
For example, on July 23, 2020, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LCDPH) announced that it created a tiered compliance and enforcement plan that will include citations and fines for businesses that continue to violate health officer orders. The LCDPH reports that, since March, it has received a total of 17,808 health officer order complaints and “investigated more than 17,000 restaurants, more than 3,500 grocery stores, more than 600 pools, and more than 3,000 other businesses.” Additionally, 26 restaurants and almost 70 other businesses were shut down for health officer order violations. (Other businesses under investigation either came into compliance or were working on compliance, and, therefore, remained open). Starting at the end of August, fines will be issued to non-compliant businesses, ranging from $100 for the first offense to $500 and a 30-day permit suspension for multiple offenses.
San Francisco addresses potential violations in its August 14 “Stay Safer at Home” Order, where the San Francisco Department of Public Health gives notice that it may order business “premises vacated and closed” in the event of violations.
The bottom line is that businesses need to be extremely familiar and comply with their Local Health Department orders and all state orders related to COVID-19. Otherwise, your business is at risk of being fined or even shut down.
Bianca Saad, Employment Law Counsel/Subject Matter Expert, CalChamber
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