Faced with escalating Coronavirus infections in California, county public health departments across the state are ramping up enforcement of COVID-related restrictions on businesses — conducting investigations, imposing fines and shutting down non-compliant facilities.
Businesses at risk of enforcement action include those not adhering to mask, face shield, physical distancing and hygiene requirements for employees or customers, limits on the maximum number of customers permitted on premises, requirements that employees be allowed to work from home if their jobs may be performed remotely, and requirements barring certain indoor operations such as, currently, dining indoors at restaurants.
In Los Angeles County, the Public Health Officer has investigated more than 24,000 businesses since March 2020 for suspected violations of the County’s “Safer at Home Order” or the State of California’s COVID-19 related public health orders. This equates to investigating nearly 5,000 businesses per month. The businesses investigated so far in Los Angeles County break down as follows: 17,000 restaurants, 3,500 grocery stores, 600 swimming pools and 3,000 businesses of other types. The volume of businesses out of compliance may be illustrated by restaurants. In June, Los Angeles County health inspectors found one third of restaurants to be in violation of physical distancing protocols indoors (including for takeout) and 44% of restaurants violating face mask and shield requirements.
Complaints by employees, customers and others of businesses operating in violation of COVID-19 public health orders are being made to county public health departments in great numbers. As of last week, nearly 18,000 complaints had been made to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department of businesses apparently violating COVID-19 related restrictions.
County health departments are shutting down non-compliant businesses. The Los Angeles County Public Health Department, for example, has closed 26 restaurants, one grocery store, one pool and 67 businesses of other types for violations of the County’s “Safer at Home” Order to date in the Coronavirus pandemic.
As part of a newly-authorized, more aggressive enforcement strategy, the Los Angeles County Public Health Department will in late August begin imposing progressively more serious penalties for violations of the “Safer at Home” Order. For first violations, $100 fines per violation generally will be imposed. For subsequent violations, businesses will suffer fines ranging up to $500 per violation. For multiple violations, cases of particularly egregious and dangerous violations or when businesses fail after being warned to come into compliance, the Department will suspend permits issued to the business for 30 days, regardless of whether the permit is issued by the County Public Health Department or any other County Department. The County Board of Supervisors ordered the stepped-up enforcement strategy this month.
The City and County of San Francisco’s “Stay Safer at Home” Order updated on July 20 gives notice that the San Francisco Department of Public Health may order business “premises vacated and closed” in the event of violations.
Local law enforcement agencies, as well, across the state are warning of more strict enforcement of the public health orders. This month, for example, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department warned that “deputies will enforce the orders, which do carry the weight of law” and that “any businesses found in violation” of the public health orders will be reported to the County Health Officer for “further investigation and possible action, which could result in the closing of a business not in compliance.”
Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and other counties have broadly publicized that violations of county Coronavirus-related public health orders may constitute criminal violations consisting, in most instances, of misdemeanors carrying sentences of fines and/or imprisonment.
The bottom line is that businesses of all types, but particularly those with high consumer traffic or significant workforces on site, should pay heightened attention to compliance with their particular county public health orders and the State of California’s orders setting out COVID-19 restrictions. If not, be warned: you may be fined or shut down, or suffer damaging media coverage.