LAGUNA BEACH, CA — How much is too much to ask of our local law enforcement officers amid a global pandemic? In 2020, large Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings are another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, still, when asked, a few of Orange County's finest say they will not enforce the governor's rule when it comes to busting up big parties this holiday. According to Sheriff Don Barnes of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, asking OCSD to enforce a soft curfew of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. during the holiday season is not in their job description.
In a statement released by the sheriff late Thursday, Don Barnes says the OCSD will focus on "emergency calls" and "not enforcing state health orders."
We had seen many police agencies across Orange County react in similar ways since summer when mask enforcement came to the table. In Laguna Beach, ambassadors were sent, especially around the outdoor dining area Promenade On Forest, to share masks with those who didn't have them, and educate the public about the importance of wearing masks, staying socially distant, and keeping others safe. Similarly, Santa Ana, Seal Beach and Newport Beach Police took the opportunity to educate the public, share masks, and use "education" to further mask-use. According to Cpl. Anthony Bertagna of Santa Ana Police Dept., officers will respond to calls and voluntary compliance is preferable, "enforcement is a last resort," he said.
According to Gov. Newsom's office, the order aims to reduce opportunities for the spread of the virus. He noted activities conducted overnight "are often non-essential." After-hours gatherings are "more likely related to social activities and gatherings that have a higher likelihood of leading to reduced inhibition and reduced likelihood for adherence to safety measures like wearing a face covering and maintaining a physical distance."
The order isn't a "full-on curfew," according to State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.
On Thursday, Ghaly said the order doesn't completely prevent people from leaving their homes after-hours.
He said that he still plans to walk his dog late at night.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said, however, his agency plans to remain focused on "emergency calls," not enforcing health orders.
"Throughout the pandemic, the Orange County Sheriff's Department has taken an education-first approach with regard to the public health orders," Barnes said. "We are currently assessing the action by the governor. At this time, due to the need to have deputies available for emergency calls for service, deputies will not be responding to requests for face-coverings or social gatherings-only enforcement."
Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, who was just elected to Congress, blasted the order and Newsom, in light of his recent highly publicized dinner out with a group of more than ten people, in direct violation of his public gathering orders.
"Governor 'do as I say, not as I do' Newsom's curfew on 90% of CA's population in 41 counties is an unenforceable abuse of power," Steel wrote on her Twitter page. "It's a wrong way to make up for his 'bad mistake' of wining and dining — maskless & inside — at an exclusive restaurant, violating his own order."
Steel was referring to a much-publicized gaffe by Newsom, who attended an adviser's sizable birthday dinner at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa despite his orders against large gatherings.
Though Newsom publicly apologized on Monday, calling his attendance a terrible mistake, criticism has mounted for his actions, particularly after photos of the gathering were broadcast by Fox11 in Los Angeles, showing the governor in relatively close quarters with other party attendees.
Orange County was moved into the state's restrictive "purple" tier on Monday, along with 27 other counties, amid a statewide surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. The move left 41 of the state's 58 counties— 94.1% of the state's population — in the "purple" tier.
The restrictive tier bans indoor service at restaurants and closes movie theaters, once again, while also prohibiting indoor operations at gyms and fitness centers.
Coronavirus cases have been surging statewide. Orange County Thursday reported 582 new diagnoses of coronavirus, raising the cumulative case count to 67,167. The county also announced nine more COVID-19 fatalities, hiking the death toll to 1,537 as hospitalizations continue to climb.
One of the fatalities was a skilled nursing facility resident, and another was an assisted living facility resident.
Last week, the county reported 18 deaths, compared with 24 the week before. Since Sunday, the county has reported 13 deaths.
According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, the number of county residents hospitalized with the virus rose from 291 Wednesday to 304 Thursday, with the number in the intensive care unit dropping from 90 to 83.
The change in the three-day average of hospitalized patients went from 13.5% to 17.8%. The county has 29% of its intensive care unit beds and 65% of its ventilators available, and county officials are confident local hospitals can handle the surge.
"I think it's important to take a look at the positive COVID-19 cases in the county, but also as a percentage of those cases, how many of those are individuals who get hospitalized and also keep track of our hospital bed capacity," County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said.
Bartlett, who is also president of the California State Association of Counties, said state officials are concerned about having enough medical staff to cover its hospital beds. Still, local medical center executives say they are prepared for the surge.
"Right now, we still have significant bed staffing in Orange County," Bartlett said. "But we need to keep track as COVID cases rise and how many get hospitalized. We want to be sure our health care system doesn't get overwhelmed."
Hospital officials must not only keep track of coronavirus hospitalizations but for other patients as well, Bartlett said.
The state has a "mutual aid" policy regarding the medical staffing of hospitals. If there is a surge regionally outside the county, Orange County's medical professionals would be assigned where there is the greatest need.
The county's intensive care units have not seen a sharp rise in patients, which could be owed to "better therapeutics" as doctors get more efficient at treating the virus, Bartlett said.
The most significant source of transmission of coronavirus is attributed to get-togethers among friends and families, a tough pill to swallow for many in advance of the holidays.
"I think it's small to medium private gatherings, where people are in close proximity without face coverings," Bartlett said.
Bartlett and some other Orange County leaders have argued that the tighter restrictions on businesses are akin to "punishment" as the county has moved back into the most restrictive, purple tier. Businesses, they say, aren't as much a vector for the disease.
"We can only shut down so much," she said. "That's why with the private gatherings, we have to figure out how to target those."
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said it is also likely that the Nov. 3 election contributed to the rise.
"Any time you have a public gathering that could include social or election-related or community protests —we're not saying you can't do those things — but we're saying they're absolutely one of the areas of greater risk because you're interacting with people outside of your normal cohorts and you don't know what parts of the community these people are coming from, so now you have a mixture of people who may or may not be from the same county. It's an unstable cohort, and that is added risk."
The county is rolling out a program to distribute no-cost home test kits for residents to encourage quarantining and social distancing.
This most recent surge in Orange County is still dwarfed by the rise in July cases when daily case rates reached 1,000 some days. Hospitalization rates soared as high as 700 on some days during the July surge. But Bartlett cautioned that deaths are often a lagging indicator, and as hospitalizations increase, so could fatalities.
The number of tests conducted is 1,300,097, which includes 21,263 received Thursday.
But whether local authorities will do anything to enforce the order remains unclear.
According to the governor's office, "the virus is spreading at a pace we haven't seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stopping the surge." Newsom said, adding that California has put on the emergency brake and sounded the alarm. "It is crucial that we act to decrease transmission and slow hospitalizations before the death count surges. We've done it before and we must do it again."