SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — In an open letter to Sonoma County residents, the Sheriff-Coroner Mark Essick on Thursday announced his deputies would no longer enforce the county health department’s public health orders, starting in June.

Essick’s letter, posted on the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, said he has heard consistently that the county’s health orders are far more restrictive than Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders, despite the COVID-19 infection rate being low compared to other counties.

“Yet we continue to see successive Public Health Orders that contain inconsistent restrictions on business and personal activities without explanation,” said Essick. “Based on what we have learned, now is the time to move to a risk-based system and move beyond blanket orders that are crushing our community.”

On Tuesday, Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she would not allow the reopenings of businesses such as hair salons, shopping malls and in-person church services because of new coronavirus infections in the county. The decision comes as the county received approval from state health officials to move faster to reopen certain businesses.

“I have deemed that it’s in the public’s benefit and the community’s health to start, as we start opening shelter-in-place, to do so in a systematic fashion,” said Dr. Mase.

Essick pointed to a flattened curve, hospitals not overrun with patients, and dramatically increased testing that verifies the county’s infection rate is under control and decreasing.

As of Wednesday night, Sonoma County has seen 530 COVID-19 cases, with four deaths. About two percent of the people tested in the county have tested positive.

Essick said he has asked Dr. Sundari and the county health department to explain why with such a low infection rate the county has not moved to a less restrictive, risk-based system, but said his requests for more information have been ignored.

“As your elected Sheriff, I can no longer in good conscience continue to enforce Sonoma County Public Health Orders, without explanation, that criminalize otherwise lawful business and personal behavior,” said Essick. “Effective June 1, 2020 I am directing all Sheriff’s Office staff to discontinue the enforcement of the Sonoma County Public Health Orders issued by the Sonoma County Public Health Department and the Public Health Officer.”

Essick said any reports of health order violations would be evaluated against the California State guidelines on a case-by-case basis, and that public interactions would be used as an opportunity to educate people on lowering the risk of infection.

“Pursuant to this shift in policy, I am directing the Sheriff’s Office Detention Division to refuse the booking arrest of individuals whose sole booking charge is for a violation of the Sonoma County Public Health Order. It is important to understand my decision does not affect enforcement policy or enforcement decisions by other law enforcement or regulatory agencies in Sonoma County; it applies to Sheriff’s Office operations in the jurisdictions we serve,” Essick said.

Many Sonoma County store owners believed they were going to start limited business with the latest orders from the state. Resident Drake Ingebretson, who was looking for a haircut Thursday, says he doesn’t know what to think.

“And then checked Google and it didn’t say temporally closed,” said Ingebretson. “Here I am and it looks like it’s still closed so obviously it’s a little confusing trying to get things done and trying to figure out what’s open and what’s not.”

Violin shop owner Mick Loveland said he understands the seriousness of the virus but, he is ready for business to reopen.

“I would say we are doing about a quarter of the business that we did in January and February compared to this month of May.”

Even with the impact to his unique shop, Loveland remains cautious. “We want to be safe, you know, selling a violin isn’t worth having somebody die so, we’re looking forward to things being lifted and just continue to be really careful,” he’said.

The decision by Sheriff Essick to no longer enforce Sonoma County health orders comes in the same week that Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santo Rosa Catholic Diocese announced he would reopen all Catholic churches this weekend in violation of the current county health orders.

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