Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, May 28 @ 4:35 p.m. / Emergencies, Health, Local Government
DA Says Lodging Owners Welcoming Tourists Could Face Jail, Fines for Violating COVID-19 Public Health Orders
Del Norte County’s district attorney says her office is prepared to prosecute businesses violating public health orders in place due to COVID-19, though she hopes she won’t have to make that decision.
DA Katherine Micks said she’s been communicating with the Del Norte Public Health Branch, the sheriff’s office, Crescent City Manager Eric Wier and Police Chief Richard Griffin about potentially enforcing the public health officer’s orders.
“It’s my understanding that the law enforcement agencies will investigate these reported violations and they will submit their investigations to my office if they believe that public health orders have been violated,” Micks told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Thursday. “At that time, after I would receive any reports, I would then make a determination (about) whether or not I felt like the case should be charged and, if so, I would go ahead and charge it.”
Micks said she hasn’t received any reports from law enforcement or the Public Health Branch seeking to prosecute a business owner for violating a public health order.
Micks spoke with the Outpost after Public Health Officer Dr. Warren Rehwaldt issued a warning Thursday to local hotels, motels and other lodging facilities who have been “taking liberties with booking of leisure guests.”
State and county orders prohibiting short-term rentals to non-essential travelers are still in place, Rehwaldt’s letter states.
Businesses violating those orders could be subject to fines and imprisonment under California Health and Safety codes 120275 and 120295, according to the letter. Under Health and Safety Code 120295, anyone violating the order of a health officer is guilty of a misdemeanor and could be fined between $50 and $1,000 or imprisoned for up to 90 days or both.
Rehwaldt urged hospitality owners to review the state’s publication on who is an essential worker if they needed clarification.
“Lodging venues are responsible for taking the steps necessary to make sure that your guests have a legitimate need to stay on your rental property,” Rehwaldt wrote. “We plan to monitor this situation closely until such time as is no longer necessary.”
In his letter Thursday, Rehwaldt said violating public health orders would constitute a public nuisance since it endangers the health and safety of the public.
“If the county is forced to pursue civil enforcement, the county will also seek attorneys’ fees as enforcement proceedings are an unnecessary burden on taxpayers,” he wrote.
According to a Saturday memorandum to hoteliers and vacation rental owners, Rehwaldt said some were welcoming people traveling for recreation during the holiday weekend.
Del Norte County is currently in Stage 2 of California’s Resilience Roadmap. This means retailers can offer curbside service to their customers, restaurants can open their dining rooms with social distancing and other precautions and people can visit golf courses and public parks, according to the Public Health Branch.
On June 3, car washes, dental and ancillary medical services can resume. Vacation and summer schools can open as can destination retail locations. All businesses must receive certification from the Public Health Branch to open to the public who will be able to easily view that certification.
Personal and hospitality services aren’t scheduled to open until Stage 3 of the four-phase reopening plan, according to the Public Health Branch.
On Thursday, Del Norte Emergency Services Manager Kymmie Scott told the Outpost that staff had made phone calls to lodging facilities to determine who was in compliance with public health orders and who weren’t.
Though she said her office doesn’t have enforcement authority, Scott has been in contact with those who do. She said the Public Health Branch, local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office wanted to focus on education before they decide to issue penalties.
That’s what spurred Rehwaldt’s most recent letter, Scott said.
“I know a copy of this letter, a hard copy, has been mailed to every hotel and motel within the county,” she said.
Speaking to both hotels and motels welcoming leisure travelers and the order governing the wearing of masks in public businesses, Bill Steven, public information officer for the Del Norte Office of Emergency Services, said law enforcement isn’t going to issue citations or arrest people.
Instead, if the Public Health Branch has concerns about a specific business or a specific individual, staff will bring them to the district attorney’s attention, Steven said. Micks would then decide whether to prosecute them or not, he said.
“I know other jurisdictions where law enforcement is issuing cites and that could be something that happens here down the road if things changed,” Steven said. “We want to be more in the role of education right now than prosecution or administering cites.”
Instead of receiving a citation, someone found to be violating a public health order would receive a letter from Micks informing them of their charge and giving them a date to appear before a judge, the district attorney said.
That person would also need to turn themselves in to the Sheriff’s Office at least a week before their court date to be booked into the jail and then released, Steven said.
Del Norte County has seen a total of 44 confirmed COVID-19 cases though 18 have since recovered, according to the Public Health Branch. More than 1,200 tests have been administered with the results for 180 pending and 985 returning negative, according to the Public Health Branch.