The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday decided not to raise fines on businesses that continue to defy COVID-19 restrictions.

Agreeing that existing citations haven’t done much to promote compliance, the supervisors held off voting on increasing the maximum fine amount (currently $1,000) that the county can issue to businesses that continue to operate in violation of the rules.

At a meeting Tuesday, the supervisors heard dozens of public comments chastising the board for even considering the idea of raising fines. Speakers who identified themselves as small-business owners said they were being financially crippled by pandemic-related closures.

“People are losing their businesses and there’s so little discussed on that,” one speaker said. “Suddenly we go to this, ‘There’s these bad actors.’ Maybe they’re desperate! Maybe they are losing their business… You’re all out of touch.”

In the past month, several gyms in Contra Costa County have received fines for refusing to shut down indoor operations. A dozen restaurants in Danville, meanwhile, have declared they will not follow the county’s voluntary ban on outdoor dining.

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Last week, one group of local businesses took the additional step of filing a joint lawsuit against the county health department. A judge said Monday he was inclined to side with the county in that suit unless the businesses prove the ban will cause “irreparable harm.”

Amid an onslaught of criticism, county officials on Tuesday doubled down on the notion that outdoor dining poses at least some risk of spreading COVID-19.

“The risk of infection is higher indoors than outdoors, but even outdoor gatherings can result in infections, particularly in locations where people remove their masks to eat food or drink,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, the health officer at Contra Costa Health Services.

“An outdoor restaurant is essentially a prolonged outdoor gathering of people who are not wearing masks. It includes several risk factors: extended times, being unmasked and being around lots of other people,” Farnitano said.

Still, the supervisors eventually agreed that raising the maximum fine amount was not the best path forward.

“It doesn’t seem that raising that maximum fine would get us any compliance at this point,” said Supervisor John Gioia. “I do think there’s been a failure at the city level at working on both education and enforcement.”

Contra Costa supervisors decide against raising COVID-19
fines for rogue businesses 1Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia speaks during a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 about his opinion of outdoor dining as a risk factor in spreading COVID-19. (Screenshot) 

Contra Costa County has seen COVID-19 cases skyrocket and deaths mount alongside nearly everywhere else in California and the United States. Several Bay Area counties, including Contra Costa, have voluntarily issued their own stay-home orders despite the region’s ICU bed availability remaining marginally above the state’s threshold for new restrictions.

Part of the stay-home order includes a restriction of outdoor dining, which California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said last week is “not a comment on the relative safety” of that kind of gathering, but an “effort to keep people home.”

Still, members of the public had no patience on Tuesday for the county’s handling of COVID-19. They called monetary fines unconscionable amid a pandemic that has ravaged the economy.

“I think the supervisors need to stop being punitive toward business,” said Kevin Rose, a Concord resident. “We have a huge equity issue in that people who can sit behind a computer and go to work can make money, but people who have started small businesses… do not have an opportunity to go to work.”

One restaurant owner in Danville pointed out that takeout — the business model that the state has asked eateries to revert to during the latest stay-home order — represents only 10% of a restaurant’s overall revenue.

“You’ve declared war on Danville,” she warned, “and you heard crystal clear: be ready.”

Another resident said the board would leave the county vulnerable to litigation should it raise fines amid a lack of evidence that certain types of businesses pose a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission than others.

Supervisor Karen Mitchoff was not too sympathetic to businesses that have willfully disobeyed the county’s stay-home order, saying the bad actors disillusion business owners who have complied with the rules.

Mitchoff read aloud a vulgar threat from a resident who promised the supervisor would “get what’s coming to you” if she supported fines on businesses.

“We are really, really tired,” Mitchoff said. “Your frustration belongs in Washington, not at us. But that doesn’t seem to matter to any of you, so I’m not supporting raising fines because they’re just not going to work, folks.”

Contra Costa supervisors decide against raising COVID-19
fines for rogue businesses 2Contra Costa Supervisor Karen Mitchoff discusses public blowback to the county’s COVID-19 restrictions for local businesses at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. (Screenshot) 

One speaker said they resented the board’s insinuation that defiant business owners are COVID-deniers. In the same comment, the speaker suggested that the pandemic is a “farce” because Gov. Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have violated coronavirus restrictions while advocating for them.

“You’re completely out of touch with the pain that small businesses are going through,” the speaker said tearfully. “We as small-business owners are not making enough to cover our costs at home or our costs to keep our businesses open.”

Gioia was the most vocal supervisor in countering public comments that suggested outdoor dining was no more risky than a crowded retail store. Shopping involves mask-wearing at all times, he said, while outdoor dining allows people to take off their masks as they sit in close proximity to others.

“We get this continual comparison that they’re the same,” Gioia said. “That is incorrect, and just saying it doesn’t make it true.”

At one point, the supervisor directly skirmished with a public speaker, interrupting her to say “You’re wrong!” when she questioned the science behind mask-wearing as a preventative measure for COVID-19.

Later, despite other speakers admonishing Gioia for his interjection, he would not apologize.

“I have a district where more people are getting COVID, more people are hospitalized and more people are dying,” Gioia said. “When people put out the wrong message based on zero scientific facts, I feel compelled to correct it.”