New members of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors were quick to make an impact within 11 days of being sworn in by adopting a countywide COVID-19 administrative penalty ordinance on the evening of Jan. 15. Supervisors approved the ordinance with a 4-1 vote, with Mark Medina, Kollin Kosmicki, Bob Tiffany, and Bea Gonzales voting in favor, and Peter Hernandez voting against it.
The ordinance, which goes into effect immediately, includes penalties for violations of state and county public health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil penalties for violations are $100, $250 and $500, depending on repeated offenses. Commercial penalties are $1,000, $2,500, $5,000 and $10,000. To recover costs in enforcement, the county will also set an administrative fee with citations.
San Benito County is following the regional stay-at-home order, which requires wearing a face covering when in public when you cannot practice social distance of six feet. It also requires the closure of certain businesses such as personal care industries, movie theaters and bars. While restaurants are allowed to operate, they are limited to take out and delivery services only.
The four supervisors in support of the ordinance stated that though there were strong feelings on both sides of the issue, they felt something needed to be done in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community. As of Jan. 15, 4,778 people in San Benito County have tested positive, 720 are active patients, 4,016 have recovered and 42 have died. The county’s current positivity rate is 16.3% and the San Joaquin Valley Region’s ICU availability is 0%.
“You’ll keep hearing me say ‘to do something’ because I don’t have the answers,” Gonzales said. “We, here at the board, we’re sitting in a place where we have a moral, an ethical dilemma to do something. We need to act, we need to protect our community.”
On the other side of the issue, Hernandez said though he supported doing something to protect public health, he questioned the amount of fines residents could incur throughout the process.
Some violations can be corrected, and the ordinance includes a grace period that may be set by the citing officer within 24-72 hours of the citation date. According to the ordinance, the citing officer has sole discretion as to whether a grace period is appropriate and takes into account elements such as the risk to public health, if the violation is a repeated offense, and whether there are good faith efforts made to be in compliance.
Cited individuals have 30 days from the date of citation to pay the fine unless an appeal is requested. Appeals must be requested within 10 calendar days and with a $750 deposit. A waiver of the deposit can be requested with “sufficient evidence of an inability to pay,” according to the ordinance.
Hernandez questioned the transparency of the process and whether an alleged violator would have the right to challenge their accuser if there was a complaint against them. Thompson said all appeal hearings would be public through Zoom.
The ordinance also allows individuals who report violations to remain confidential, though a fine will not be issued unless the enforcement officer verifies that a violation occurred.
For Tiffany, a member of the ad hoc committee that prepared the ordinance along with Kosmicki, the intent of the ordinance is not to fine residents and small businesses, but to address areas that are at higher risk of transmission.
“We’re going to be focused on the ones that are the most egregious and defy the orders,” Tiffany said.
The countywide ordinance also allows cities to request changes or modifications that must be approved by the Board of Supervisors. San Juan Bautista and Hollister are responsible for enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines within their city limits.
Supervisors previously considered an administrative penalty ordinance on two occasions, but failed to gain the majority of votes needed for approval. San Juan Bautista City Council unanimously adopted a COVID-19 enforcement ordinance in December, one day after the Hollister City Council voted not to adopt its own version.
Medina, who did not support the first draft presented last July because it went beyond facial covering requirements, said he supported the current ordinance because of the data.
“I did not vote for it, but that was also when our death rate was much lower, our positivity was much lower and even our cases were much lower,” Medina said of his earlier stance.
Kosmicki said the ordinance is based on science, data, practicality and doing what is best for public health.
“There is nothing political about this decision,” Kosmicki said. “It cannot be political, not when lives and livelihoods are on the line.”
Twenty eight members of the public spoke in opposition; 15 voiced their support. A copy of the draft ordinance is attached below.
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