San Mateo County considers fines for violating public health orders

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San Mateo County is considering fining individuals and businesses who don’t abide by public health orders.

At its meeting Tuesday, the county’s Board of Supervisors will consider passing an ordinance that would fine non-commercial entities and individuals — such as someone who fails to wear a mask when one is required — up to $100 for a first violation, up to $200 for a second violation that occurs within one year and up to $500 for each additional violation within that same year.

For commercial entities violating the health order, fines would range from $250 to $3,000 for each violation.

The administrative fines could be issued by members of the county sheriff’s office, local police departments, county health and parks officials and code enforcement officers, and others as approved by the board.

An enforcement officer must witness the infraction in order to cite an individual or non-commercial entity, the proposed ordinance states. However, an enforcement officer doesn’t have to catch a commercial entity in the act, but can determine a violation “through investigation and from credible sources,” it adds.

The ordinance provides all who are cited an ability to appeal the fine.

The fines aim to gain compliance with COVID-19 pandemic health orders amid a spike in cases. Last week, San Mateo County was placed on the state’s coronavirus watch list, which aims to monitor and address concerning COVID-19 trends, prompting the re-closure of certain indoor businesses, including gyms, barbershops and shopping malls.

While violations of COVID-19 health orders are already punishable as a misdemeanor offense, county officials say administrative citations work better in enforcement than criminal citations.

“Criminalizing violations may be overly punitive, consume a high amount of community resources, and take a long time to process,” officials said. “The infraction and administrative citation structures offer additional tools to give the County and cities and towns flexibility and supplement their efforts to encourage compliance and deter violations.”

San Mateo County wouldn’t be the first county to adopt fines. Contra Costa, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, and Yolo “have adopted similar infraction or administrative citation structures to allow them to issue fines to enforce face mask mandates and other public health orders,’ according to the County.