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‘Quarantine fatigue’ leads some Sonomans to flout shelter ordinance

“Quarantine fatigue” has begun to spread through Sonoma Valley and beyond, as the county enters its sixth week sheltering in place. The collective resolve shared by many in March has begun to show signs of fracture in May, nearly 50 days into the mass quarantine mandated by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Compliance has proved particularly problematic at the supposedly off-limits beaches, where 5,200 scofflaws seeking relief have been apprehended by Sonoma Coast State Park personnel since March 28. The vast majority were made to suffer a scolding, though several hundred parking citations have been issued as well, along with 20 more serious citations requiring court appearance.

The Sonoma County shelter-in-place ordinance in effect since March 18 is unambiguous: “All persons may leave their residences only for Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, to work for Essential Businesses, or to perform Minimum Basic Operations for non-essential businesses,” it reads.

The problem lies in interpretation of the ordinance, with one man’s “essential activities” another man’s trifling errand. In Sonoma there has been vigorous - and increasingly contentious - debate about both the spirit and the letter of local quarantine law.

On the neighborhood social media platform Nextdoor, Mel Salada wondered “Why do some people think they are exceptions?” after witnessing an individual routinely walk his dog past a city park’s posted “closed” signs in recent weeks. Confronted last week before the county eased its park closure restrictions, the man rejected Salada’s authority to limit his mobility. “We are all trying to do our part,” Salada countered as the man walked on, manifestly determined to do as he pleased.

“We do get reports daily,” said Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez. “We’ve had to respond to educate and remove people from the parks.”

At the grocery store, rogue individualism can likewise be found. Early morning hours set aside to allow senior citizens safer shopping have been routinely invaded by much younger people, and some shoppers still browse without the facial coverings required as of April 17.

“We do get some people who refuse to wear facial covers,” Rodriguez said. “One of our deputies who happened to be getting a cup of coffee at one of our grocery stores contacted a person who wasn’t wearing a facial cover and told him to leave the premises.”

Some restaurants, many on life support after six weeks of shutdown, appear to be increasingly willing to bend the rules. One local eatery told a caller that once their food left the premises in a to-go box, all bets were off. Can it be eaten at one of the restaurant’s café tables on the sidewalk? “Why not? You can do what you want,” a staffer replied.

The ribbon of bike path running through town has been another heavily contested bit of territory. Closed to cyclists a few weeks into quarantine before that restriction was lifted April 28, riders nonetheless continued to crowd walkers there. “I see kids and adults riding every day, no masks, and no call out when they come from behind,” Judith Vaughn complained on Nextdoor. “The reason there are posted signs on sawhorses in front of every entry to the bike path stating that bicyclists are not aloud (sic) because of COVID-19 is for all of our safety.”

Sonoma code enforcement officer Bob Smith said his team has been fielding three or four complaints every day, and that most scofflaws are aware that they’re violating the ordinance. “The response is always, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Once they’re busted, they move along. Somebody complains and we follow up, and that takes care of the problem,” Smith said.

Housebound people on the outer edges of stir crazy have snuck onto hiking trails all over the Valley, even at the Sonoma Developmental Center, where enforcement of the trail closure is typically robust. One woman who described herself as a “63-year-old grandmother” recounted two officers threatening her with handcuffs while walking there.

But Steve Castelli, who remains working at SDC, complained that a general sense of entitlement has made trail closures difficult. “I could write a book on my experiences on how rude and obstinate many people got with me just trying to let them know what the new rules were,” Castelli said. “My guess is that the cops are very frustrated. The amount of people that are ignoring the signs that the grounds are off-limits is mind boggling.”

Some businesses that fall outside the county definition of “essential” have continued operating behind papered windows, and “essential businesses,” like Friedman’s Home Improvement, are mobbed by people who can’t all be fixing sudden holes in the roof. Last weekend, with the sun shining brightly in a way that conjured summer, shoppers snaked from the main entrance all the way to the wood yard, though appropriately distanced and all wearing masks.

Cell phone location data recently analyzed by the University of Maryland shows a decrease in the social distancing index (SDI) in many states, as fewer and fewer people limit trips from home. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for one, is frustrated by what appears to be an increasing disinclination to see the forest for the trees. “This virus doesn’t take the weekends off,” Newsom said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Sacramento last Monday. “The only thing that will set us back is people stopping to practice physical distancing and appropriate social distancing. That’s the only thing that’s going to slow down our ability to reopen this economy.”

Chief Rodriguez, on the other hand, believes Valley residents are generally upstanding, despite logging 12 violations of the “city/county ordinance” over three days this week. “For the most part, Sonoma residents have been doing a great job of sheltering in place and using peer pressure to keep others from violating the orders,” he said. “Overall, Sonoma is a great community. Compared to other cities in our county, our residents are doing a great job.”

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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