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Sonoma County sheriff won't change course, backs away from deal to continue enforcement of health order

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick dug in his heels Friday, obstinately defending his choice to order his department to stop enforcing Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase’s public health orders after feeling he was left out of key decisions and ignored by supervisors and top administrators, thrusting the county into an explosive national debate about limits on liberty and economic activity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Essick confirmed his decision Friday evening, roughly 24 hours after his sudden announcement that he was pulling his deputies back from any enforcement of Mase’s health order. That move led to a hastily arranged Friday morning meeting among the county’s top political leaders and health authorities, who thought they had secured a deal with Essick - one they intended to announce as a group in the afternoon, according to several officials at the meeting.

But that announcement never came, and Essick was said to have changed his mind several times throughout the afternoon, forging agreements in one phone call with fellow Sonoma County leaders, and abruptly changing his position in the aftermath.

In a 5 p.m. interview, he said his stance on Thursday would not change - that come Monday, his deputies would only educate the public about the local health order, but not enforce it.

“I’m not following this f--king health order, and my original statement that we’re done on June 1 stands until Dr. Mase is able to provide me with enough information that we’re on the right path,” Essick said.

Essick said he ultimately felt called to “double down” on his initial plan to demand the health department provide more data and collaboration before he would commit to enforcing its rules, saying he was elected as sheriff “to defend the people of this county.”

The move was a dramatic shift from the agreement Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin believed the group of senior officials had reached during a Friday morning meeting convened by one of the county’s two congressmen, Rep. Jared Huffman and attended by the second, Rep. Mike Thompson. Also present were state Sen. Mike McGuire, the assistant majority leader of the Senate, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, Dr. Mase and Barbie Robinson, director of the county’s health department.

Gorin said in an interview after that call she received “a commitment from the Sheriff’s Office to enforce the public health officer orders to the best of their ability.”

But Essick withheld his support after the call, creating confusion among county leaders and the public. The Sheriff’s Office after 1 p.m. posted a brief update on its Facebook page saying the department still intended to stop enforcing the public health order starting Monday.

By 4 p.m., Mase, Robinson and Gorin believed they had again reached an agreement with Essick to avoid such a yawning rift in policy and enforcement. Mase announced on a call with reporters: “The sheriff has agreed to enforce the orders.”

But Essick dispelled that notion only an hour later.

Essick’s 24-hour stand came just two days after county supervisors roundly gave public support for Mase’s decision this week to pause the county’s reopening for up to 14 days after reporting several alarming trends: a recent rise in local COVID-19 cases, increased person-to-person transmission of the contagion and a spike in hospitalizations, which she characterized as “red flags.”

But Essick criticized Mase and the health department for withholding key information that might help the public understand the current status of the virus here, such as how many of the active cases represent seriously sick people, the number of current hospitalizations and patients requiring ventilators. The health department has repeatedly declined to reveal that data, citing patient privacy rules.

Gorin said the health department agreed to provide regular briefings with the Sheriff’s Office.

This is a breaking story. Check back for updates.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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