A group of 19 local lawyers and businesspeople is alleging the Kern County Public Health Services Department’s stay-at-home order is unconstitutional and not authorized by law.
In a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors, the group has requested the order be rescinded and replaced by a “strong recommendation” the public engage in social distancing and wear personal protective equipment.
“This (pandemic) is obviously a serious crisis,” said local attorney Isaac St. Lawrence, who helped write the letter and is one of the 19 signatories. “That being said, it is important that we do not forgo our constitutional rights, that we don’t forgo rights that men and women in the military have given their lives to protect. From a strictly legal point of view, I see us going down a very dangerous path.”
An April 2 order issued by Kern Public Health Officer Kristopher Lyon institutes a variety of coronavirus prevention mandates, including banning private gatherings and serving food in restaurants, making a violation of the order a misdemeanor.
However, the letter claims the legal statutes cited in the order do not give the county broad authority to quarantine. In addition, the letter says the order violates several constitutional rights, including the freedom of religion and the freedom to peaceably assemble. The letter also claims the order violates a property owner’s right to earn a living by use of their property, and the county could be liable for losses incurred.
“This taking of property owner’s rights was without due process, without compensation, and clearly infringes upon the free market of commerce,” the letter states. “Based on a plain reading of the Order, it appears that not only are all ‘non-essential’ healthy Kern County residents placed in quarantine, the U.S. Constitution has also been quarantined.”
Kern public health spokeswoman Michelle Corson said the letter had been referred to the county’s attorneys. Supervisors have not met since the letter was mailed, and St. Lawrence says he has not received a response.
For many of the signatories, the county’s order cut into their core constitutional beliefs.
“What is the difference between shelter-in-place orders and house arrest, other than we get to go to the grocery store?” said Mark Carroll, owner of Carpet Outlet Plus.
He added that a part of the reason why he signed the letter was because he didn’t think the county should have the authority to decide which businesses could be open and which needed to be closed.
“Some of the businesses that have been put in this predicament where they’ve been told no, could operate safely, or at least could operate at some capacity,” he said.
For Cassie Bittle, whose family owns KC Steakhouse, the decision to sign the letter came because she wanted the supervisors to know how she and others felt.
“As people and business owners and residents, if we don’t voice our concerns, how are they supposed to know what they want?” she said, adding that the letter was not meant to be threatening, and that because the county had limited public participation in supervisors meetings, a letter is one of the only options for the public to make their opinions known.
She said she hoped the supervisors would give residents some indication of the plan to reopen the county by May 15.
“We’re not unrealistic,” she added. “We understand that there are new safety procedures that will need to be put into place.”
But if a plan to reopen is not put into place, many businesses fear they will incur permanent damage, and the letter writers — who point out they are taxpayers — worry about the liability the county will expose itself to if nothing changes.
“As we put it in the letter, a lot of what their goals are, as far as that order is concerned, could be achieved by making recommendations, doing education, whether it’s the social distancing, wearing masks,” St. Lawrence said. “They can do it without making it a misdemeanor for five people to meet up in a park.”