Should California punish people who refuse to stay home? Newsom prefers social pressure

Tribune Content Agency

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In addressing the coronavirus crisis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been steadfast in contending that his stay-at-home order should be enforced through persuasion, not punishment.

And instead of calling on the National Guard to patrol the streets, the 52-year-old Democrat continues to enlist Californians to pressure one another to “bend the curve.”

“That social pressure we’re seeing out there for people to do the right thing is the most powerful enforcement tool we have,” Newsom said Monday.

But while the approach is consistent with the governor’s deliberate response to the coronavirus pandemic and his effort to persuade Californians to adapt to the new restrictions rather than wielding the power of his office, some have questioned whether Newsom needs to do more.

Newsom reasserted his position over the weekend with the launch of a new public awareness campaign that relies on video messages from celebrities including rapper Snoop Dogg and actor Will Ferrell to persuade Californians to stay home. The governor’s office says the campaign includes advertisements on top social media sites and public service announcements from Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and officials in his administration.

The executive order Newsom signed March 19 requires the state’s 40 million residents to remain in their homes, except for necessary trips to the grocery store, pharmacy or doctor, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Though violations are punishable by a misdemeanor, jail time and fines, Newsom has emphasized that he would rather educate Californians about the restrictions, and urge them to comply, rather than take more harsh enforcement actions.

Newsom has said, however, that businesses that flout the law could see their liquor licenses and other permits suspended and has called on law enforcement agencies to crack down on residents who violate the law.

We know that misinformation on the internet can lead to tons of confusion and stress.

California law gives state health officials, who report to the governor, and county health authorities broad powers to prevent and control communicable diseases that threaten the public. Newsom has, in essence, deputized local officials to enforce his order.

“To the extent we have to exercise our formal authority as it relates to licensing and business revocation because people abuse it, we will,” Newsom said. “But again, I’m just incredibly blessed and pleased to live in a state where so many people get it, and increasingly are getting it done.”

At the same time, public health experts — and Newsom — have warned that the stay-at-home order is only effective if people make a concerted effort to change their habits.

The governor has maintained that the vast majority of Californians are abiding by the new restrictions, even after back-to-back weekends of crowded beaches and packed farmers markets have suggested that social pressure might not be enough in some cases.

In response to the large crowds, Newsom closed all state parks to cars on Sunday. He has reiterated that local officials should enforce the stay-at-home order as needed in their communities and commended Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who threatened to shut off water and power to businesses that remain open, for taking the right approach. Garcetti went a step further Monday and temporarily shut down all farmers markets across the city.

“Each city has different operations,” Newsom said last week. “Each city has different strategies of how they want to enforce and notify citizens.”

Police Chief Ron Lawrence of Citrus Heights, just outside Sacramento, said many law enforcement agencies throughout the state have taken cues from the governor’s comments.

“All of us are in this together,” Lawrence said. “What police chiefs don’t want is an adversarial posture. We really don’t want to take enforcement action unless we have to.”

Lawrence, who is president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said the stay-at-home order and other restrictions have been a “shock to everybody,” noting that asking Californians to change their behavior and daily routines will necessitate an adjustment period.

Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said arresting people for defying the stay-at-home orders — similar to the deterrent power of any other law — will encourage people to stay home, but he questioned the logic of placing people in crowded jails during a pandemic.

“Obviously, the government isn’t terribly interested in using resources for that, by any means,” Volokh said. “So, my guess is that, to the extent there’s any actual law enforcement here, it’s going to be very much aimed at trying to trying to deter people through the threat of arrest rather than actually arresting people.”

Volokh said lesser means of enforcement, such as ticketing cars in parking lots near beaches or other places now closed to the public, or citing people who are congregating, can be effective deterrence mechanisms. He said Garcetti’s threat to turn off utilities at businesses requires limited government resources and won’t force police to physically interact with store owners.

Standing next to Newsom at a news conference at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, Garcetti said the city would enforce an L.A. County order to close all beaches, public trails and trailheads to the public. The next day, law enforcement in Manhattan Beach fined a surfer $1,000 after he ignored orders to stay out of the water in defiance of Los Angeles County’s beach closure.

The Los Angeles Police Department has denied that officers have been conducting vehicle stops and putting up checkpoints to enforce the order in response to contradicting claims on social media. Officers were seen in Venice ordering people off the beach Saturday, and a helicopter was filmed ordering people to leave a skate park or be arrested for trespassing.

Garcetti said police officers visited at least one restaurant that remained open, leading to its closure, but largely agreed with Newsom that most people are complying with the order without enforcement.

“Ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of this can be done without any criminal penalty,” Garcetti said. “But we’re prepared, if anybody is an outlier, because one person can be a super spreader, one person can kill someone, one person can kill themselves.”

The Police Department in San Jose, a hot spot for coronavirus infection, also warned businesses and residents last week that they would receive citations if they kept violating public health restrictions after being warned.

Packed beaches in San Diego County led the city of San Diego and other municipalities to the north to also close their beaches.

“The purpose is to save lives. They are not recommendations to be followed when they are convenient,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told the Los Angeles Times. “If we can’t get the voluntary compliance, we’re ready to issue citations.”

Mary Ann Limbos, deputy health officer for Yolo County in Northern California, said her agency is prepared to order more aggressive enforcement if warranted, but thus far that has not been necessary. Still, the stay-at-home order has only been in place for less than two weeks, and there’s always the danger of complacency, she said.

“It’s going to take at least a couple of weeks in order for us to see any changes in the numbers of cases we are seeing,” Limbos said. “But I think it was a wake-up call the other day when we actually had a death in the county.”

In rural parts of the state, where some counties have yet to identify a positive coronavirus case, violations of the statewide order are rare but still cropping up.

Sheriff Mike Fisher of Sierra County, home to 3,000 residents, said his deputies have quickly remedied calls concerning noncompliance.

“The thing here in Sierra County is that people tend to kind of self-social-distance themselves to begin with,” Fisher said. “The fact is that a majority of our county right now is covered in snow. People tend to stay in a little bit more anyways.”

The sheriff’s office has not taken any enforcement action, Fisher said. His deputies have been busy helping deliver food to the elderly and other people at risk who don’t want to travel into towns or stores, he said.

Since California enacted the first stay-at-home order in the nation, more than half of the states in the country have adopted their own orders, including Washington and New York, which have struggled with large numbers of coronavirus cases.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a similar stay-at-order Monday, warning that anyone who willfully violates the order can be charged with a misdemeanor. On Friday, police reportedly arrested a man who after he did not disperse a bonfire party attended by dozens of people, violating the governor’s earlier order banning large gatherings.

Arrests or citations also have been reported in Indiana, New York, Hawaii and Ohio for people who violated stay-at-home orders or social distancing requirements — though many of those arrests have largely been focused on more serious crimes that occurred while people were out in the community.

Newsom has warned Californians that their choices will determine whether the state’s health care system is overrun with sick patients.

“I completely reject this notion that somehow we are destined to any particular fate,” Newsom said last week. “It is decisions, not conditions, that determine our future. And it’s the sum total of millions of individual decisions. And that’s why we can’t let up on the good decision-making that we’ve seen from the overwhelming majority of Californians over the course of the last few weeks.”

Researchers at Harvard found that more than 262,000 people in California would require intensive care if just 20% of the population became infected with COVID-19.

Newsom wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump last week that the state expected more than half of all Californians to become infected with the novel coronavirus in the next eight weeks. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, later said the state figure failed to reflect the effects of the stay-at-home order or social distancing policies, which could dramatically decrease the spread of the disease if followed.

Ghaly said the Newsom administration anticipates a need for 50,000 hospital beds above and beyond the existing supply in California.

A University of Washington study, which does take California’s order and other policies to slow the virus into account, suggests more than 6,109 people will die from COVID-19 in the state by Aug. 4. The state is making efforts to secure 50,000 more hospital beds for sick patients should the number of coronavirus cases surge as expected by mid-May, according to Ghaly.

The governor’s office said the “Stay Home. Save Lives” campaign includes advertisements on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Spotify and that businesses in California have invested more than $6.5 million to support it.

In a video the governor’s office posted on Facebook this week, Ferrell, described as a “famous millennial” who loves to go out on the town and party, advises Californians to create their own party in the comfort of their homes.

Snoop Doog, in a more serious tone, tells viewers to remain in their homes and says “the longer you stay outside, the longer we gonna be inside” in a 30-second video that Newsom’s office promoted on Twitter.

In other videos, actress Kerry Washington talks with California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris about social distancing and actor Kumail Nanjiani encourages residents to flatten the curve and stop hoarding toilet paper.


(Times staff writers Soumya Karlamangla and James Queally contributed to this report.)


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