MONTEREY COUNTY — Shelter-in-place orders from the county and state have been continuous since they were issued in March, but the easing of restrictions in late May had many believing the orders had ended.
Now, with restrictions tightening once again to control the spread of Covid-19, Monterey County has prepared to respond to businesses not enforcing safety protocols.
“Shelter-in-place orders can only be enforced by law enforcement, so our response has been enforcing or following up with the shelter-in-place guidance and following health orders with our regulated facilities,” said John Ramirez, the county’s director of environmental health, in a press conference July 10.
This new effort by the county, which began July 9, circumvents the issuance of citations by police officers or sheriff deputies by giving health department staff the ability to impose penalties after a three-step warning process.
Ramirez said the county is able to enforce with regulated entities, which not only include restaurants, but also auto repair shops, gas stations, agricultural operations, chemical storage sites, pools, spas, hotels and motels.
“We’re not only focusing on food operations, we’re focusing on a multitude of operations that are permitted in Monterey County under our health permits,” Ramirez said.
The county’s newest approach is a tiered compliance verification process.
“What we’re doing is visiting each site where we have received complaints of non-compliance, either by the public or employees, at these facilities,” Ramirez said. “We send staff out there initially to evaluate the status of compliance. Is it face coverings not being worn? Is it distancing not being practiced?”
From there, county staff will provide outreach and education to work with the facility to determine what is prohibiting them from complying with state and local orders.
“Our staff then comes a second time to ensure that compliance has been met after the first time,” Ramirez said. “If we still find that there’s compliance issues, then we direct staff to find out what’s preventing them from complying.”
Again, county staff will work with the facility to resolve whatever the issue at hand may be, from posting signs to fixing a lack of face masks.
“We give them resources and opportunities to get them compliant rather than using any enforcement,” Ramirez said.
The county is aware some locations may need that extra reminder, but it is also prepared to react in case two visits aren’t enough.
“If we return on a third visit and find that the facility continues non-compliance, at that point we’re going to issue a notice of violation,” Ramirez said.
Facilities that receive such a notice have 24 hours to comply, and if they don’t, the county will suspend their permit. At the point of permit suspension, the facility is legally able to ask for a court hearing within 15 days.
However, once the issue moves to court, presided over by an administrative law judge, there is the potential for monetary and criminal penalties.
“They may be subject to administrative costs, fines and penalties,” Ramirez said. “We also have the potential to send any continued non-compliance issues to the district attorney’s office for them to follow up if they deem necessary.”
Such monetary penalties can include employee time when county staff visits a site, which Ramirez said could accumulate to three or four hours of county employee time.
According to Ramirez, the county is investigating 10 food facilities — five in the Monterey Peninsula area and five in the Salinas area — that have continued non-compliance issues. He explained there were an additional five non-food operations being investigated as of July 10.
Those 15 total facilities are the current investigation roster out of the estimated 6,000 facilities in Monterey County with health permits.
Ramirez said outreach and education is the main goal of the county’s latest efforts, and highlighted efforts to get information in Spanish out to agricultural workers, who continue to be the largest industry, percentage-wise, infected with Covid-19.