Intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to get the county off the state watchlist, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance authorizing fines for health order violators, along with a series of other virus relief focused measures. 

The emergency ordinance, supported by Sheriff Carlos Bolanos and proposed by board President Warren Slocum and Supervisor David Canepa, implements fines for individuals and commercial entities that fail to enforce face coverings. 

“It’s not that we’re sending the mask police on the street looking for the individual [not wearing a mask]. I think we have bigger fish to fry as we try to tame the corona,” said Slocum during the remote meeting. 

Moving forward, those who fail to follow health guidelines, such as wearing face coverings, could be fined $100 for first-time violations following a warning. A $200 fine would be given on second offense and all additional violations would result in a $500 fine if committed within the same year. According to a board memo, smaller fines for individuals are intended to deter noncompliance with the ordinance while limiting potentially serious financial burdens. 

Fines for commercial entities would range from a minimum of $250 to a maximum of $3,000. Severity of the fines would depend on how many prior warnings the establishment received, the gravity of the health risk, possible intentions of profiting off the violation and whether there was an earnest attempt to comply. 

The measure gained unanimous support from supervisors, though some members expressed concerns. Supervisor Don Horsley expressed concerns for adding an additional responsibility to law enforcement officers who would be tasked with monitoring compliance with the law alongside other “enforcement officers.” 

“I don’t think this is something we want to dump on to law enforcement. It may be that the plan includes it but I think it’s one more responsibility that I don’t think is really warranted at this time,” said Horsley who noted he would be voting for the measure despite his concerns. 

Supervisor Dave Pine said he felt most residents were already wearing face coverings, citing his own anxiety about needing to wear a mask in public. 

“I believe that San Mateo County residents are doing a really good job at complying. I mean, you’re never going to have perfect,” said Pine. “Ultimately the things I think are most important are the ongoing education, kind of creating social pressure.” 

While Pine commended community members for taking mask wearing seriously, he noted the measure would have its greatest impact in commercial spaces where face covering requirements may not be followed. 

“If there’s an establishment open and they’re not following the rules, you get a lot of bang for your buck in enforcement in that area,” said Pine who added residents should not expect high ticketing numbers. 

Both individuals and commercial entities would be permitted to appeal the fines through a written dispute decided by a neutral dispute officer. Commercial entities would also be permitted to dispute larger fines through an oral hearing with a subsequent right to appeal through the Superior Court. 

Disputes are intended to allow for those fined to prove they have a medical exemption for wearing face coverings or to request a hardship waiver if they genuinely attempted to comply or would experience a serious financial burden due to paying the fine. 

The emergency ordinance is similar to those in other Bay Area counties including Contra Costa, Marin and Napa. During the remote meeting, Canepa announced Santa Cruz County had also joined the region in enforcing mask wearing with fines. 

Supervisors also unanimously passed a measure temporarily suspending zoning regulations and use permits for restaurants, hair salons, barber shops, personal care services, gyms, places of worship and wineries interested in expanding outdoor operations. The measure comes in light of state officials placing the county on the state watchlist which required many businesses to reshutter. 

San Mateo County Health Chief Louise Rogers told the board during a COVID-19 update that County Health Officer Scott Morrow argued most areas being forced to close were not hot spots for transmission. 

Establishments interested in opening services outdoors will be required to comply with social distancing guidelines, the most recent county health order, and state and local directives for reopening businesses.

Renters experiencing hardship due to COVID-19 were also lent support during the Tuesday meeting when supervisors unanimously approved a measure extending the repayment period for back rent. The measure allows for tenants to repay withheld rent in full within 12 months of the eviction moratorium’s expiration. Half of what is owed will be required to be repaid within six months after the order expires, currently set to be Aug. 31. 

“We have been supporting renters and taking those steps to activate their rights, to make sure they’re protected under these moratoriums. What we’re finding time and time again is it’s not enough in terms of kind of putting folks at ease about what’s going to happen after the moratorium is [lifted],” said Ofelia Bello, the executive director of Youth United for Community Action, an East Palo Alto based organization focused on environmental and social justice issues

Bello, like many other community participants, spoke in favor of the extension to give residents “extra time to gain a little bit of stability and footing.” 

In other business, a series of measures were approved granting Measure K funds and federally granted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. Measures include the distribution of $2,879,010 of CARES Act funds for the “Public Internet Connectivity Pilot Project” to assist in improving high-speed internet access for disadvantaged students in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and unincorporated areas. 

An additional grant of $75,000 of Measure K funds was approved to expand digital access, practical support and services for Jefferson Elementary School District students and families affected by COVID-19. A measure, sponsored by Slocum, will grant up to $45,000 of Measure K funding to United Through Education, a family-focused education organization, that would provide virtual lessons to parents on transitioning from in-person classes to remote learning.  

Additionally, $1 million of CARES Act funds was approved for a pilot program focused on providing supplemental funding to school districts participating in universal meal programs aimed at reducing food insecurity among students. The measure authorizes the county manager to enter an agreement with the San Mateo County Office of Education tasked with administration and distribution of the funds. 

The distribution of $2 million of Community Development Block Grant funds and CARES Act funds was also approved to continue efforts in assisting tenants experiencing hardship directly due to COVID-19 with rent payments. 

In response to concerns of financial hardship on landlords who have not received rent payments, the board also adopted a measure directing the county manager to develop a Small Residential Rental Property Owner Assistance Program. The program, aimed at granting relief to landlords and incentivizing compromises on back rent with tenants, could potentially receive up to $3 million after being presented to the board mid-September. 

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