LOS ANGELES — As California officials try desperately to keep people inside to slow the spread of the coronavirus, authorities are beginning to crack down on scofflaws.
The crackdown has escalated in recent days, with nonessential businesses that refuse to shut down as well as people who defy orders to stay out of the water finding themselves in the crosshairs.
Los Angeles prosecutors on Friday filed criminal charges against two smoke shops, a shoe store and a discount electronics retailer, accusing them of refusing to shut down despite orders imposed to fight the coronavirus. It marks the first time the city has filed charges for violations of the “Safer at Home” order, which requires businesses deemed nonessential to close their doors to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
A paddle boarder was arrested Thursday after ignoring lifeguards’ orders to get out of the ocean near the Malibu Pier despite beach closures. County lifeguards patrolling the shore by boat tried to get the man to come ashore. Despite repeated orders to exit the water, the man continued paddle boarding for at least 30 minutes. Lifeguards eventually flagged down Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who responded by boat to help, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
A surfer in Manhattan Beach was fined $1,000 last weekend after he was accused of similarly ignoring warnings by police and lifeguards not to go in the water. It’s not clear how many people in the region have been arrested for violating the governor’s order.
City Attorney Mike Feuer on Friday said the four stores were deemed nonessential businesses under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s executive order.
“The mayor’s order is clear: Only essential businesses, such as healthcare providers, organizations serving vulnerable populations, and grocery stores, may remain open during the COVID-19 emergency,” Feuer said. “We’re all safer at home. Nonessential businesses remaining open at this time jeopardize public health and safety, and my office is committed to vigorously enforcing the mayor’s order.”
Garcetti said the stores were putting lives at risk. At one store, police officers were told, “ ‘Forget you’ — probably not in as nice words — ‘we’re not going to do it,’” the mayor said.
“We want to let people know that we are serious about this, that businesses that flagrantly violate this will be shut down short term and prosecuted in the medium term as well,” Garcetti said.
City officials led by Garcetti have been warning since last week that they will prosecute those nonessential businesses still open. The mayor said the Department of Water and Power would cut off service to the premises of noncompliant businesses.
San Diego authorities also are vowing to crack down.
“I think the days of trying to get voluntary compliance are really over,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. “The message is going to go out to all of public safety here in the county that we will start issuing citations for violations of the public order and the governor’s executive order.”
Gore said the maximum penalty for violating the order was a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
Sheriff’s deputies and police officers in cities throughout the county may carry out the enforcement, he said.
Law enforcement agencies will rely on reports of violators from the public, but they should not call 911. They instead are asked to call the nonemergency number of the law enforcement agency in their jurisdiction or fill out a form that was set to be posted online beginning April 4.
“If you see a violation of the order, please report it,” said San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox at the Thursday news briefing.
Health officials said social distancing is essential to slowing the virus — and showing some early signs of success.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that the county should expect to see 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day in the coming weeks and that the key to keeping the rate of spread manageable is for the public to stay largely at home.
“The next few weeks are going to be critically important, because we are going to see more cases of people who are positive with COVID-19, but it’s our hope that the rate of increase continues to be manageable and that we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system,” she said.
Whether the increase remains manageable, Ferrer said, depends on how well residents adhere to guidelines that they wash their hands frequently, stay home as much as possible, remain six feet away from others when leaving the house and avoid going out entirely if they are over the age of 65, feel sick or have underlying health conditions.
(Gary Warth and Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.)
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