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Kingsburg: COVID enforcement falls on County, State
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Kingsburg: COVID enforcement falls on County, State

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KINGSBURG — In light of the latest business reopening guidelines issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and in an effort to determine what guidance to give local businesses clamoring to reopen, Kingsburg’s City Council called a special meeting for May 8.

While some Council members were ready to give all businesses in town permission to open immediately in defiance of the State’s current guidelines, others wanted to get legal input first as to what new laws, if any, were needed at the local level.

In the end, Council decided it would leave the majority of enforcement of COVID restrictions to Fresno County and the State, but keep the right to punish egregious violators of CDC and social distancing guidelines.

Councilman Vince Palomar said he’d like to see all businesses in town deemed ‘essential’ and reopened immediately. He also wanted to have churches opened up for services, but that issue will be brought back for another Council session as it was not on the agenda at this time.

“This is Kingsburg and we’re different,” Palomar said. “I’d like to recommend that we, as a city, say that all businesses are essential. That’s how I feel about it. We need to open up this town. Every business owner doesn’t have to open, it’s up to their discretion, but we should give them the chance.”

Councilwoman Laura North agreed saying that since different areas of the state have varying numbers of COVID cases, she feels the Governor should consider local data before issuing blanket orders.

“We’re a rural community and things are a little bit different here. We were given guidelines but we were not asked our opinion or input about what was right for our town,” North said.

She added that she thinks local police should focus on crime, not enforcing COVID-related mandates.

Councilwoman Jewel Hurtado said that while local businesses are needed, she was concerned about opening too quickly and having the coronavirus spread rapidly in town.

“Our numbers are low and I want to ensure we can do our best to keep them that way. I think if we open up too quickly, we could risk an outbreak yet again,” she said. “I believe we should not jump into this too quickly, but gradually open, as recommended by the State.”

In a letter of support for local businesses to the Governor, Mayor Michelle Roman said there were “only seven active cases at this time.” The Fresno County Health Department has not yet returned emails and phone messages to verify that number. The Health Department has reported that at the county level that 319 patients out of a total of 945 have recovered from COVID-19.

At press time, the most recent Fresno County Health Department data shows that the number of coronavirus cases that have occurred in town is 23. Ten cases were first reported on April 17.

Councilman Sherman Dix said since the city does not have jurisdiction over licenses issued by such state agencies such as the Alcoholic Beverage Control and California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, he didn’t want to give local businesses a false hope that the Council could rule one way or the other on their opening, or if there would be consequences if they open ahead of the governor’s guidelines.

However, Dix said it’s time to weigh the benefits of sheltering in place versus opening businesses.

City Attorney Mike Noland said since the City did not previously issue the order to shelter in place, or decide which businesses are essential or not, he advised that they not make such a ruling at all.

“We really have no authority to make motions with regards to reopening the local economy or defining which businesses can open and which can’t.”

He said the real issue boiled down to whether the City would enforce the state and county rules by having local police deal with violators.

In an announcement on the City’s website posted May 10, a post states:

“The ability to reopen your business is a decision you must make while considering all factors of individual operations. Staff is available to answer questions, and would direct business owners to review guidance as issued by the State and CDC when deciding to reopen.

“All residents are reminded to continue to follow social distancing guidelines as set by the State, including keeping gatherings under 10 or less.”

Police Chief Neal Dadian said their department has not yet taken any COVID enforcement action during the state of emergency and believes they’ve had compliance thus far.

Dadian said people have called the department about concerns over what they believe were non-compliance with stay-at-home orders.

“We haven’t taken an enforcement action and I’m not going to take an enforcement action. That’s not what local police are for. This is where it gets into a judgment call,” he said.

City Manager Alex Henderson said any COVID violation enforcement action will more likely be handled through code enforcement where they will first inform local businesses of the state and county laws.

He said thus far, no citations have been issued.

Noland said the Council will not restrict the Police Department or code enforcement, however, if “an egregious situation” arises “or something that is so beyond CDC or County Health Department guidelines that it could result in a detriment to the community. We have to consider not waiving the right to enforce,” the attorney said.

Mayor Roman asked whether CDC guidelines about social distancing should be encouraged to protect clients and customers.

“Our businesses are asking for some sort of a guideline to say, ‘if I open this is what I’d like to do.’ Because you know we’ve got the best business owners here. They want to do right by our citizens and they want to make sure they protect themselves, they want to protect their employees and they also want to protect our citizens.”

However, on the same day of this special meeting, a local décor, gift and clothing shop made a social media post on May 8 that not only would they be open for shopping inside their store, they were not requiring that masks be worn, “however the state is recommending them,” their post read.

Roman added that if the local COVID case numbers rise dramatically in the future because of non-compliance with the CDC, state and county guidelines, the issue would be reconsidered and a stay-at-home order be initiated at that time.

During the meeting, Council took public comment from local business owners and community members either in favor of, or against, the idea of businesses opening up immediately, Council heard from their attorney about liability issues.

When asked whether a business or the City could be sued if it can be confirmed that an employee or customer did contract COVID-19 at a location, Noland said, “if a business voluntarily opens up inconsistent with the requirements issued by the state and the county health department, and is not in conformance with those guidelines, they could subject themselves to liability.

If somebody goes into their business and contracts COVID-19, so that’s certainly a possibility, but the City would not be in that situation since they don’t have the authority to tell the businesses whether they can open or not. That’s up to the State.”

With regards to churches suing the Governor to open back up to services, Noland said in the one California case he was familiar with, a federal judge ruled May 5 upholding the state mandate.

“The case I’m aware of, the church did bring an action to try to remain open,” Noland said. “The federal courts ruled against the church and held in favor of the state in exercising their rights to protect the health and safety of the community.”

Laura Maldonado can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@hanfordsentinel.com

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