It became plain during the July 4 holiday weekend that Los Angeles County has at least a partially scofflaw sheriff. So do several other California counties. They’re essentially enforcing only laws and rules they like.
As coronavirus hospital admissions neared capacities just before the nation’s 244th birthday, doctors readied rationing schemes deciding who would get ventilators in case of a shortage. Then Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered beaches and their parking lots closed in most coastal counties to slow the contagion.
When similar orders prevailed during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva stationed deputies at regular intervals along his county’s vast strands, their mere presence warding off would-be surfers and others who merely wanted to lounge on the sand. California bent the COVID curve.
But not this time. A holiday drive along more than 20 miles of beaches revealed shut-down parking lots and plenty of “Closed” signs – but no deputies. As a result, wherever roadside parking was possible along the Pacific Coast Highway, beaches were crowded, surfers clambering down bluffs and cliffs headed for the unusually high waves that prevailed.
No deputies could be seen trying to hinder them, let alone write citations. If the pandemic revival of late June and early July continues into August, this will likely be part of the reason, just as big, mostly unmasked and un-socially-distanced Memorial Day beach and protest crowds helped cause the state’s second onslaught of COVID-19.
Newsom, who almost daily issues edicts governing business and personal behavior, did little. Yes, before the holiday, he threatened to take some state funding from counties that wouldn’t follow orders on mask use and beach closings. The threats were paper tigers.
This was also true of his response when Merced County Sheriff Vernon Warnke refused to enforce state orders in May and June, claiming they meant “economic slaughter.” Now cases are surging in Merced County and Warnke is recanting.
Through all this, the scofflaw sheriffs continue commanding their corps of deputies as if they were tough law enforcement officers. They have not been penalized, making a mockery of state authority.
It’s not unique to California. Hours after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered his state’s residents to mask up in public, the sheriff of rural Lewis County told a crowd to go barefaced. Carrying a megaphone and wearing his uniform to prove he spoke officially, Sheriff Robert Snaza exhorted constituents, “Don’t be a sheep.”
This amounted to an endorsement of risking death for themselves and others.
It’s essentially a rebellion by local sheriffs against governors trying to save lives by using their emergency powers, one of the highest duties of any public official.
But at least five California sheriffs and a couple of mayors have told constituents Newsom’s orders are “unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
Given what’s happened around those counties, with caseloads and death tolls rising daily, it’s high time Newsom did more than just talk.
It is politic to urge citizens to be responsible, as the governor continually does. But the Memorial Day beach scenes, the unmasked protest marches and the actions of countless restaurant and bar customers demonstrate he must do something more dramatic.
Newsom has dispatched several hundred state inspectors to enforce rules on businesses, but they sometimes work unpredictably and even at odds with his orders. One example: restaurants in Morgan Hill that followed the pre-Fourth of July order to close indoor operations were told to shut down outside tables – not part of the state order. Overall, inspectors issued at least seven citations on their first day out and hundreds since.
Newsom says he hopes persuasion will be enough to get Californians to follow his orders. It has not worked well enough, leniency most likely costing at least some lives.
Which makes it high time Newsom put teeth in his orders. Yes, some localities fine face mask recalcitrants hundreds of dollars when they persist after being warned, but no one has punished scofflaw sheriffs and mayors.
If they won’t uphold rules they’re sworn to enforce, those officials should either be removed from office or see their agencies lose major state funding. The carrot plainly hasn’t worked well enough; it’s time for the stick.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net