Health inspectors fanned out to 29 businesses across San Diego County, threatening criminal prosecution and $1,000 fines for ignoring orders to avoid indoor activity during the coronavirus pandemic. Not just that, the businesses’ names appeared on the county’s website — unwelcome publicity as officials push companies to comply with tightening restrictions.
The actions Monday marked another turn in a monthslong tug-of-war among officials in California over whether to emphasize enforcement or persuasion as infection rates soar and the holidays arrive along with colder weather and the flu season.
Instructors at The Yoga Box were startled when health inspectors arrived simultaneously at four studios to deliver scolding letters from Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer.
Owner Amanda Burns said she complied with two previous state-ordered shutdowns but stayed open Monday after a third order took effect, saying it “was just a matter of trying to survive.”
“They’re coming at us harder,” said Burns, who closed her studios after getting cease-and-desist letters on indoor classes because holding them outside is impractical with shorter daylight hours and colder weather.
San Diego officials said posting the letters online is an effort to be transparent and not meant to shame business owners. The county previously disclosed violators’ names only upon request.
County spokesman Michael Workman said it seemed more efficient to post them all online. “They are public record,” he said.
Twenty-six cease-and-desist letters were posted Tuesday — four issued that day and the others dating back to July 31.
The approach can have benefits and drawbacks, said Don Moore, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business who studies behavioral decision-making.
Consumers may avoid businesses that officials label as unsafe, and businesses may clean up their act. But violators may “find themselves celebrated as some sort of weird folk heroes standing up to government domination,” he said.
Moreover, the publicity may encourage more misbehavior as reluctant businesses realize “there are other scofflaws out there.”
Better to reward positive behavior by giving businesses that follow the rules a public seal of approval, “as opposed to ‘This business sucks, they’re horrible,'” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at University of California, San Francisco.
“This is literally called shaming, public shaming,” Gandhi said.
It’s emblematic of California’s general approach, which has been to focus on poor behavior, she said, even if officials have been reluctant to impose punishment.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Wednesday said his office would not enforce a 10 p.m. curfew that’s starting Friday for restaurants and nonessential retail businesses in the nation’s most populous county, where cases more than doubled in the last two weeks and hospitalizations rose 30%.
San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher is frustrated with the mayor of El Cajon, who said enforcing state orders is not a priority for police in the suburb of 103,000 people.
“The willingness of elected officials to openly advocate defiance of our laws is very concerning,” Fletcher said.
The same patchwork approach is evident statewide.
Sacramento County supervisors are considering allowing fines against scofflaws, patterned after a similar, if little used, policy in neighboring Yolo County. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in August went so far as to shut off utilities to some homes caught hosting large parties.
But officials in Fresno and Placer counties are among those saying they won’t enforce state rules, and two Republican state lawmakers are trying to rally 14 Northern California counties to formally call for a local approach that emphasizes reopenings.
It’s a muddled message from the top down, one that can cause residents to ignore warnings, Gandhi said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday again pleaded with residents to avoid gatherings that officials mainly blame for the recent surge. Yet he simultaneously renewed the state’s ban on indoor church services, indoor dining and indoor gym workouts in 41 of the state’s 58 counties.
“You can’t say that the data shows it’s private gatherings and then from the other side of your mouth say, ‘I don’t have evidence that it’s businesses, but because I can’t control human behavior, I’m going to punish you,’” Gandhi said.
Moore doesn’t see it that way.
“Gov. Newsom really finds himself in a predicament in an attempt to get tougher when the state lacks enforcement mechanisms for individual behavior,” he said. “They can regulate businesses, and so that’s what they’re trying to do.”
With some local officials refusing to act, Newsom created multiagency “strike teams” ahead of the Fourth of July weekend that have since made nearly 1.5 million in-person visits, phone calls and emails, 60% of them within the first month.
The state agencies have since taken 4,163 enforcement actions, including issuing citations and revoking business licenses, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services that coordinates the program.
Eric Nuñez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, views the pandemic as a public health crisis rather than a public safety issue, so police are reluctant to step in.
“Compliance is better gained through education and just trying to reason with people as much as possible,” he said.