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Sonoma County sheriff won’t change course, backing away from deal to continue enforcement of health order

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

To see how Sonoma County is doing on each of the 16 indicators developed by the state to serve as benchmarks for local counties seeking to reopen, go here.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick doubled down Friday on his stunning announcement a day before that his deputies would stop enforcing Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase’s public health order, a move likely to thrust the county into an explosive national debate about limits on liberty and economic activity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Essick, who publicly complained that he’d been sidelined in key decisions and ignored by county supervisors and top administrators, confirmed his stance Friday evening, roughly 24 hours after his sudden statement, posted on social media, that he was pulling his deputies back from any enforcement of Mase’s health order. The move caught county supervisors and peers in law enforcement by surprise, and none came forward publicly to voice support in its wake.

Instead, the county’s top elected leaders and health authorities were drawn into a hastily arranged online meeting Friday morning where many thought they had secured a deal with Essick — one they intended to announce as a group in the afternoon, according to several officials at the meeting.

But that announcement never came, and Essick was said to have changed his mind several times throughout the afternoon, forging agreements in one phone call with fellow county leaders, and abruptly changing his position in the aftermath.

Then, in a 5 p.m. interview, he said his stance from Thursday would not change — that come Monday, his deputies would only educate the public about the local health order, but not enforce it. Speaking with emotion, Essick said he felt the county was “trading lives for lives at this point. All around me I see crushed families, crushed relationships, a crushed economy.”

“I’m not following this f--king health order, and my original statement that we’re done on June  1 stands until Dr. Mase is able to provide me with enough information that we’re on the right path,” Essick said.

The sheriff said his deputies will continue educating residents about the health order and guidance to wear masks in public, wash hands and keep a distance of 6 feet from others. But he stuck by his original demand: that the health department needed to provide more data and collaboration before he would commit to enforcing Mase’s order, saying he was elected as sheriff “to defend the people of this county.”

He did not, however, inform fellow elected leaders he was persisting in his stand, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. They voiced shock Essick had backed away from his promise earlier in the day to withdraw his “non-enforcement threat.”

“This community has been through so much over the past 2½ years — multiple devastating wildfires and floods — and we’ve always come out stronger by working together,” McGuire said. “Cooler heads must prevail. There’s too much at stake for ego.”

County health officers have broad authority during health emergencies to sharply restrict activities and take measures to stem dangers to public health. Mase issued her first order in mid-March and has since followed a succession of state guidelines that have allowed her to loosen restrictions.

But with a recent increase in cases, hospitalizations and person-to-person transmission, Mase this week announced she would pause any further reopening for 14 days until she can be sure the county is not running headlong into a surge of illness that could overwhelm its medical resources.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

To see how Sonoma County is doing on each of the 16 indicators developed by the state to serve as benchmarks for local counties seeking to reopen, go here.

Just last week, the county published demographic data showing the virus was disproportionately affecting Latino residents, who represent 27% of the population but a startling 70% of reported cases of COVID-19. That was another point of concern in addition to outbreaks at some workplaces, Mase said.

But Essick pointed to the low rate of illness in Sonoma County, where only 2% of the 25,258 tests for COVID-19 have resulted in positive diagnoses. The public health department reported 322 active cases as of Friday night, including 10 people hospitalized with the disease.

Essick said Mase’s rules have in some cases seemed arbitrary and difficult for his deputies to defend, such as permitting patio dining but not outdoor church services.

Essick, a 26-year department veteran who was first elected sheriff two years ago, rejected the idea that he is bristling at the power of an appointed public health officer. He said he respects Mase’s authority and wants to continue working with her.

But he said law enforcement should be included in policymaking talks for rules his agency is being asked to enforce.

He compared the unprecedented limits on civil liberties during the pandemic to the decision he made to evacuate nearly 200,000 people during the Kincade fire last year.

“It was an emergency situation,” Essick said. “As soon as the threat was mitigated, we let people back in. That’s what’s missing here.”

Since he took his stance against Mase’s health order Thursday, Essick said he has felt “bullied” by local elected officials, and he singled out Rep. Jared Huffman, one of Sonoma County’s two congressmen, who convened Friday morning’s meeting with Essick and lawmakers.

“I’m mindful that I’m a member of the U.S. Congress, it’s not my place to dictate to a sheriff how to do his job,” Huffman said. “It’s not my place to tell the county how to set up its communications or its rules.

“But we all represent the same people, and I thought it would help to use my position to help bring people together,” Huffman said. “And the fact that the sheriff views that as bullying suggests he’s in a fragile and dark place right now and that causes me to worry.”

McGuire said Essick’s claim he had been bullied is “100% inaccurate.”

“Congressman Huffman was an absolute statesman. It’s disappointing to see the sheriff go his own way. The community deserves better than this,” McGuire said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has been clear that local health officers must make decisions based on local data. He underscored during his public briefing Friday that the state’s guidance allowing some businesses to reopen and community activities to resume are not directives.

“We are not mandating a pace for opening,” Newsom said.

Responding for the Governor’s Office to a follow-up question posed by The Press Democrat about any potential state reverberations from Essick’s stance, a representative from the state Department of Public Health replied in an email, “Suggest you ask the sheriff.”

“Local health officials know their communities best and Californians should pay attention and listen to these leaders,” an unnamed Public Health spokesperson added in a statement.

Essick’s move was a dramatic rejection of an accord that Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin believed the group of senior officials had reached during the Friday morning meeting convened by Huffman and attended by Rep. Mike Thompson, the county’s senior congressman. In addition to McGuire, the assistant majority leader of the Senate, and Hopkins, the board vice chairwoman, Dr. Mase and Barbie Robinson, director of the county’s health department were also present.

In an interview after that call, Gorin said she had “a commitment from the Sheriff’s Office to enforce the public health officer orders to the best of their ability.”

But Essick withheld his support in the following hours, creating confusion among county leaders and the public. The Sheriff’s Office after 1 p.m. posted a brief update on its Facebook page saying the department still intended to abandon enforcement of the public health order.

By 4 p.m., Mase, Robinson and Gorin believed they had again reached an agreement with Essick to avoid such a yawning rift in policy and enforcement. Mase announced on a call with reporters: “The sheriff has agreed to enforce the orders.”

Essick dispelled that notion only an hour later in an interview.

His 24-hour stand came just two days after county supervisors roundly gave public support for Mase’s decision this week to pause the county’s reopening for at least 14 days after reporting COVID-19 trends she characterized as “red flags.”

No other law enforcement agency has followed the sheriff’s lead, and many law enforcement chiefs, including Ray Navarro of the Santa Rosa Police Department and Ken Savano of the Petaluma Police Deparment, have publicly vowed to enforce Mase’s health order.

Other elected officials called out the sheriff on social media Friday. Supervisor-elect Chris Coursey said Essick had done “a disservice to his community and his government and law enforcement colleagues with this back-and-forth sh-t show.”

“ ‘Protect and Serve’ means you work together to keep the community safe. These actions undermine the work that local government has done for the past 10 weeks — work that has kept our infection and death rates relatively low,” Coursey said.

Santa Rosa Councilman Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant who ran against Essick in 2018, called his decision “appalling” and said he was “misinterpreting the governor’s guidelines, adding to the confusion of an already frustrated public.”

“The sheriff’s ill-informed decision has caused a dangerous division in local law enforcement that puts the public and officers in harm’s way,” Oliveras wrote.

Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett issued a statement Friday calling for Essick to be removed from office, describing his actions as “reckless.”

“He needs to go,” she wrote.

Hopkins, late Friday, said such options still stand and she urged Essick to view Mase’s expertise on health matters with as much regard as he gave to the fire officials who advised him on evacuations during the Kincade fire. Hopkins said her constituents in the west county initially pushed back against evacuation orders because the fire, burning in northeastern Sonoma County, seemed so far away.

“I stuck my neck out and I defended Sheriff Essick’s decision,” Hopkins said. “There are a lot of analogies to draw today. Dr. Mase is that official that is vested with that responsibility now.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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