As Kern County continues to struggle with high numbers of coronavirus patients in local hospitals, one city has taken enforcement efforts a step further than its neighbors.
By instituting fines for public gatherings and certain banned business activities, the city of Delano has added teeth to the state’s stay-at-home order in a way that has been shunned by other Kern County leaders. Yet, as the ordinance goes into effect throughout next month, it could impact all of Kern County’s ability to reopen.
“The reason we’re doing this is because we are the second largest city in Kern County,” said Delano City Councilwoman Veronica Vasquez. “This is our way of helping our neighbors.”
Delano has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. According to Kern County Public Health Services data, the community 30 miles north of Bakersfield has the third highest rate of overall COVID-19 cases within the county.
Although it is difficult to tell how many coronavirus patients have been from Delano because Public Health only provides data by ZIP code, the 93215 ZIP code that encompasses the city has experienced 13.3 COVID-19 cases per 100 residents since the start of the pandemic.
Only the ZIP codes associated with Shafter, at 14.2 per 100, and Wasco, at 16.3 per 100, are higher.
And because Delano has more than twice as many residents as Shafter and Wasco, the 7,409 total cases it has experienced is especially stark. Delano stands as the third highest region in Kern. Only two Bakersfield ZIP codes, 93306 and 93307, have higher totals. Both areas have more than 14,000 more residents than Delano.
“It’s sad to see that we have so many families doing GoFundMe's because of the death of someone from COVID-19,” Vasquez said. “That’s been an ongoing trend for the last couple of months.”
Until mid-February, two code enforcement officers in Delano will enforce the ordinance and issue fines, which impact gatherings in public of 10 people from different households, as well as dining in restaurants and operating salons and barbershops. Starting with a warning, the fines increase to $100 for a first offense, then $200 and eventually $500.
“I wanted to prioritize COVID-19 and do what we can in order to make sure that we bring down the cases and save lives,” said Delano Councilman Salvador Solorio-Ruiz, who first introduced the idea of fines for gatherings in December.
Fellow Councilman Joe Alindajao added the concept of including businesses within the ordinance, something city officials say generated some positive feedback even in Delano’s business community.
Delano’s approach to COVID-19 enforcement flies in the face of fellow municipalities, which have mostly been content to just encourage compliance with state shutdown rules. Both the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department have said they would refuse to enforce certain aspects of the governor’s orders.
Other entities that could potentially pursue COVID rule-breakers with more zeal have also taken a more backseat approach.
“Our role at Public Health is to provide education and assist our local groups and businesses on understanding the governor’s orders and state guidance,” Kern County Public Health Services spokeswoman Michelle Corson said. “We continue to encourage our community to adhere to industry guidelines when it comes to gatherings and events.”
When county supervisors were contacted on Friday about Kern potentially following in the footsteps of Delano, only Zack Scrivner responded to a request for comment.
“I believe the county of Kern should continue our approach of education and outreach to local businesses, and our focus of effort now is on vaccine distribution, which is the true pathway out of this pandemic,” he wrote in an email. “The governor has never presented any data that shows this virus is being spread to any significant degree in businesses, and our own contact tracing instead indicates that the virus is being spread mostly in private homes among friends and family.”
With a mass rollout of the vaccine beginning to take place, it could be only a matter of time before transmission rates dwindle in Kern County. Still, many more will likely die before the pandemic has ended.
“I want people to see the bigger pictures. Yes the fines are there, but I also want them to understand the seriousness and severity of it,” Vasquez said. “Everybody is making it about the fines, but let’s make it about our community, what’s best about our community.”