UPDATE: Santa Clara County approves fines for not wearing masks, flouting health order
In this file photo, customers observe social distancing and wear face masks while wait in front of Bicycle Express. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Santa Clara County will begin issuing fines of up to $500 for not wearing face masks or social distancing in public, the Board of Supervisors decided unanimously Tuesday.

In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impact, the board adopted an urgency ordinance issuing citations against residents and businesses for violating health code regulations, including not wearing a mask outdoors. The new ordinance will go into effect immediately.

“I’m supporting this because we have something in place we can use now,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman. “We have so many closed businesses and people out of school and unemployed and headed towards bankruptcy. We can’t afford the time to sit down with various groups and negotiate.”

While county officials for months relied on the “honor system” to enforce the rules, officials said the message was not resonating and violations to the county health order ran rampant. County Executive Jeff Smith warned on Tuesday the state will take negative financial action toward counties that don’t actively enforce local and statewide ordinances.

“We have to come up with an enforcement mechanism in order to avoid losing revenue,” Smith said.

Several Bay Area counties, including San Mateo and Contra Costa counties, have adopted similar policies to issue fines on health order violators.

Santa Clara County’s measure was proposed after an increase in the number of COVID-19 violations, officials said, including failure to wear face coverings and social distancing. County public health leaders say those violations resulted in a recent spike of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Businesses will also be cited for failing to follow health guidelines under the ordinance.

“Anyone who thinks we don’t need more aggressive action should look at the chart showing just how many tests we are or aren’t getting,” Supervisor Joe Simitian said Tuesday. “Lives are at stake.”

As the county last month began loosening its shelter-in-place orders and reopened some businesses, it reported an increase of COVID-19 cases to 10,767 from 7,537 from July 13 to Aug. 2. There have been 12,962 cases, 207 deaths and 180 hospitalizations as of Tuesday, according to Santa Clara County Public Health.

County officials say some businesses are not reporting positive COVID-19 cases, hampering the county’s ability to conduct contact tracing. A San José Spotlight report this week revealed more than two dozen businesses have been accused of forcing employees to return to work, despite shelter-in-place orders, ignoring employees who showed symptoms and hiding unsafe work conditions. 

“There have been numerous instances of businesses failing to timely report positive cases in their workplaces which undermines the county’s ability to effectively carry out contact tracing,” according to a staff report. 

An East San Jose resident named Veronica said many businesses near her are not in compliance with public health orders and asked who to contact. She was told to call the District Attorney’s COVID-19 tipline.

The county also received reports of several large healthcare facilities refusing to provide tests to people at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, or who have been exposed, officials said. County leaders said the success of the shelter-in-place orders rely on effective enforcement.

Hospital leaders Tuesday expressed concerns about keeping up with testing, especially as supplies run low.

“We’re working in good faith to stop this pandemic,” said Elizabeth Vilardo, CEO of Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “But we’re hampered by a shortage of testing material and the variable sensitivity of tests.”

Cindy Chavez, president of the Santa Clara County board of supervisors, said her office has been trying to move health and hospital systems in the county in a positive direction for months.

“The partnership we need from 11 hospitals has to be done in a much more urgent, orchestrated, way,” Chavez said. “This says the board is serious about testing countywide.”

Multiple scientific studies have confirmed that social distancing, facial coverings, robust testing and rapid contact tracing are effective at curbing the spread of the virus.

Under the measure, violators could be fined $25 to $500 and businesses could face penalties ranging from $250 to $5,000. The fine amount will depend on the severity of the violation, the gravity of the public health risk exposed and repeat offenses, among other considerations.

Unlike enforcement policies in other Bay Area counties, Santa Clara County lawmakers are proposing a grace period of up to 72 hours that allows an individual to avoid facing fines — subject to the discretion of the enforcement officer — if the violation is corrected. Resisters could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000. 

“It is the intent of this provision to provide a grace period as the default whenever applicable,” the resolution says, “however, all matters relating to grace periods are within the sole discretion of the Enforcement Officer and are not appealable.”

Much of the onus to enforce the county health order, including the mandatory face mask requirement, fell on businesses and residents. County leaders had recommended reporting COVID-19 workplace violations to the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement and other violations to the District Attorney’s Office. 

Face coverings have become a hotly debated political issue, even in Silicon Valley, with some refusing or forgetting to wear masks. 

Supervisor Dave Cortese in July described enforcing the rules somewhat of an “honor” system, hoping people would be peer-pressured into doing the right thing.

The county said the fines will fund compliance education and the cost of the Public Health Order Enforcement Program.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]