As nighttime curfew begins, sheriffs across SoCal vow no enforcement — but to varying degrees

The nighttime curfew going into effect in most of California’s 58 counties Saturday night will not be strictly enforced by any Southern California sheriffs — a vow made individually by each agency in the region.

From Ventura to San Diego counties, sheriffs have said deputies will not be patrolling the streets, looking for people violating the public health order. Rather, they are hoping for voluntary compliance and don’t plan to actively enforce the new, state-issued, coronavirus-related restrictions.

About 94% of the state’s 40 million residents live in the 41 counties placed under the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. The health order will remain in effect starting 10 p.m. Saturday until 5 a.m. Dec. 21. State officials have said it bans non-essential activities like social gatherings with other households and only permits essential activities like grocery shopping — much like the March stay-at-home order.

Restaurants can only serve takeout past 10 p.m., officials said.

People dine along 5th Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter before an imposed curfew on Nov. 21, 2020 in San Diego. California Governor Gavin Newsom has imposed a curfew, starting at 10 p.m. Saturday evening, affecting most California counties due to an increase of COVID-19 infection rates around the state. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The curfew only applies to counties in the purple tier of the state’s reopening plan, the most restrictive stage, which prohibits gyms, movie theaters, restaurants and many other businesses from hosting customers indoors. Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties are all back in the purple tier after previously managing to get case rates low enough to make it into the less-restrictive, red tier.

The red tier allows the partial reopening of these businesses’s indoor operations and other easings of restrictions.

Now those counties must comply with the widespread stay-at-home order along with San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, which have all consistently been in the purple tier.

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“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic… We are sounding the alarm,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement released Thursday, three days after apologizing for violating the state’s health restrictions himself, attending a 12-person dinner while mask-less at the swanky French Laundry north of San Francisco.

“It is crucial that we act to decrease transmission and slow hospitalizations before the death count surges,” Newsom said. “We’ve done it before and we must do it again.”

But among the Southern California sheriffs who have vowed to not actively enforce California’s new health order are some who have gone a step further, vowing to not respond to curfew-related calls.

In Orange County, where masks drew protests and even opposition from elected officials earlier in the pandemic, Sheriff Don Barnes said deputies will not respond to any such calls and questioned the constitutionality the order.

“Let me be clear — this is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement,” Barnes said in a statement Friday.

“Orange County Sheriff’s deputies will not be dispatched to, or respond to, calls for service to enforce compliance with face coverings, social gatherings, or stay-at-home orders only,” Barnes said, saying deputies will only respond to calls related to crime and “the protection of life or property.”

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The county has been the site of widespread opposition to masks, from protests to public statements of opposition from elected officials earlier in the pandemic. In late May, as cases surged around the country, Barnes told county supervisors: “We are not the mask police.”

In neighboring Riverside County, Sheriff Chad Bianco has also questioned the health order as potentially violating residents’ constitutional rights. But he also gave another reason for deputies not taking calls about house parties and other curfew violations.

In a statement released Thursday, Bianco said deputies won’t respond to such calls “to limit potential negative interactions and exposure to our deputies.”

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The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Two deputies died from COVID-19 on the same day back in April, when at least 26 employees were infected with the virus.

Even in Los Angeles County, where county public health officials have issued their own set of restrictions going a step further than the state’s order, sheriff’s officials have said they won’t patrol for violators or take other steps to actively enforce the curfew.

“I can tell you that the sheriff’s deputies are not going to be out on foot or out in their vehicles, looking for people between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to question them about their whereabouts,” said L.A. County sheriff’s Capt. Edward C. Ramirez of the West Hollywood station.

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“Our goal is to not arrest folks,” Ramirez said. “Our goal is to not use criminal law to enforce these things but to utilize education, to utilize humanity, to talk to folks about the issue.”

About a third of the more than 1 million coronavirus cases in California have been in L.A. County, which holds a quarter of the state’s population, according to public health figures released Saturday.

In the past, some violators of health restrictions in L.A. County have been dealt heavy fines. A party promoter in Glendora faced $1,450 in fines and more than $17,000 in other costs from the city after hosting a mansion party in August where dozens of guests were photographed not wearing masks.

House parties and other gatherings with other households have been widely cited by public health officials as a driving force behind recent surges in cases. L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer has said social gatherings among younger adults are driving the infection rate as they make up most of the new cases reported daily. The state has said the curfew targets those sorts of situations.

In Ventura County, deputies will respond to complaints of gatherings with other households like parties, Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Buschow told the VCReporter. Still, he lambasted the state-issued curfew as “problematic” and “untenable,” saying deputies won’t actively patrol for violators.

“There is no legal justification or mechanism for how it should be enforced,” Buschow told the VCReporter.

San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies also will not actively patrol for people violating the curfew, and officials have said complaints related to the health order will be handled by a countywide Joint Information Center. The county created a hotline back in March for virus-related concerns.

“We trust that members of the communities we serve will act responsibly and demonstrate good judgement to do their part to slow the spread of the virus,” the department said in a statement.

“Going grocery shopping is essential. Going to the pharmacy is essential. Going to a drinking party at your friend’s house is not essential,” San Diego County Undersheriff Mike Barnett said in an interview with local television station KUSI.

“And we’re not necessarily going out, looking for these [individuals],” Barnett said. “We get enough complaints about it, and we’ll certainly respond to calls for service that we get.”

On Thursday, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore had announced a “full-time law enforcement presence” to ensure all local businesses comply with the nightly stay-at-home order. The county has issued 52 cease-and-desist orders since Monday demanding compliance from violators.

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