State and local cooperation seen as key to bringing local industry into compliance with the latest COVID-19 restrictions has gotten off to a slow start despite hundreds of recent complaints that local businesses are operating in violation of rules issued by Sacramento.
The top local authority on the matter said confusion about the restrictions persists locally despite two recent, largely redundant meetings with state officials that failed to clarify the restrictions and exactly how the county is expected to help enforce them.
"There's been no coordination to date and that is difficult for us at the local level,” said Kern County Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine.
The result has been a relatively hands-off approach in Kern — and a sense of frustration among local businesses that the state has failed to engage with them effectively.
Most if not all local businesses are doing their best following state guidelines, said Jay Tamsi, president and CEO of the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But he said there needs to be a way for companies fighting for survival to share their concerns.
"While I applaud local and state officials for launching an educational outreach effort for local businesses, there is much needed dialogue and communication between the businesses and state and local authorities," Tamsi said by email Friday.
Late last month, after the county landed on a state watchlist by failing state metrics on COVID-19 containment, places of worship and various categories of businesses in Kern were ordered to cease indoor operations and either move outside or shut down. Others such as tattoo and piercing parlors were told to quit operating altogether.
That order came after Gov. Gavin Newsom's July 2 call to halt indoor operations at businesses including dine-in restaurants, movie theaters and family entertainment centers. Bars, breweries and pubs were told to close regardless of whether they could operate outdoors.
The intent is to slow the spread of a so-far incurable virus that's already pushed local hospitals to their limits.
LIST OF COMPLAINTS
Most of the 539 complaints filed with the county as of Thursday allege businesses are operating when they shouldn't be, Constantine said.
He said subsequent complaints have prompted 120 second warnings. Of those, 37 have allegedly refused to come into compliance, he said, forcing him to report them to a state task force set up by Gov. Newsom in early July.
It is unclear what the state has done with that information.
As of Tuesday, 104 citations have been issued statewide accusing businesses or other organizations of refusing to comply with the state's COVID-19 restrictions, according to Brian Ferguson, deputy director for crisis communication and public affairs at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. He referred a request for local specifics to the various agencies on the state task force.
But the agencies did not respond to requests for comment or were unable during a three-day period to turn up information on how many Kern County businesses have been cited for alleged failure to comply with the state's restrictions.
Ferguson said the task force's primary goal is to collaborate across different levels of government and provide resources for coaxing businesses into compliance with state resources. Only organizations "thumbing their nose" are being targeted, he said.
"Day-to-day work is still going to happen at the local level," he said. "The county and local officials are always the first line of defense on this," he said.
Constantine said two state agencies that are part of the task force have contacted the county independently since early July to discuss enforcement plans. There have been only two meetings total since then, both covering the same ground, he said, and neither yielded specific information on the role local authorities are supposed to play.
The county's chief administrative officer, Ryan Alsop, said by email he views the state as being in charge of efforts to promote compliance with pandemic-related restrictions.
"The governor ... has asked local public health officials in counties across the state to not only support (state) directives but to also reinforce these orders through engagement and communication with the impacted businesses," Alsop wrote. "This is what Kern County has been doing from day one."
Representatives of the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff's Office said they've played a minimal role in enforcing the state restrictions.
A KCSO spokesman said complaints are forwarded to the county public health department, while a BPD spokesman said the department sees its responsibility as educating community members and businesses on the restrictions "in an effort to encourage voluntary compliance."
Some local jurisdictions across the state have taken a proactive enforcement role. Elsewhere, cities have been threatened for allegedly refusing to do more to promote compliance with the state's COVID-19 restrictions.
Last week, Ventura County approved restraining orders against people and businesses refusing to comply with restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. That came after a church in Newbury Park allegedly continued meeting indoors in defiance of state directives.
Also last week, prosecutors in San Diego filed misdemeanor charges against a gym owner accused of continuing to operate in spite of state orders.
Late last month, California officials acted to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money from Atwater and Coalinga over concerns local officials were knowingly permitting businesses to continue operating in violation of restrictions out of Sacramento.
Constantine said he has no reason to believe state officials disapprove of Kern government's handling of COVID-19 restrictions.
In many cases, he said, the problem appears to boil down to legitimate misunderstanding among business owners.
"The (state) guidance documents are confusing and it's just not clear" exactly what the state expects of businesses, he said.