As indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms begin reopening under less restrictive health orders, county officials are expected to consider new guidance Tuesday that focuses on penalizing only the worst or repeat offenders for COVID-19-related violations.
Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger tried last week to pass a motion directing health inspectors not to impose any fines on a first visit.
Hahn, who co-authored a July motion calling for financial penalties, last week said some fines amounted to “salt in the wound” for businesses struggling to get back on their feet and spending on safety improvements.
“I was shocked to hear that businesses received a $500 fine during the first inspection, even when they are working to comply,” Hahn said last week.
Barger said she believes inspectors want to be part of the solution, but have faced a hostile reception at some businesses.
“It is my hope by removing any threat of fining on the first offense, we can develop a collaborative spirit between environmental health (inspectors) and our communities,” Barger said.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she and her constituents are more worried about businesses who seem to believe it’s easier to pay the fines than comply with the law.
“Our concerns in the 3rd District have been much more around people who have refused to comply or who have continued not to comply,” Kuehl said, noting that the underlying ordinance was aimed at distinguishing between scofflaws and businesses operating in good faith.
Kuehl asked for more time to consider the language and consequences of the motion and garnered enough support to postpone the decision for a week.
During last week’s discussion, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board that inspectors are already focused on helping businesses come into compliance. Hundreds of inspectors are out every day and “where the violations aren’t significant, we really very rarely cite,” Ferrer told the board.
Violations that result in fines include failures to screen employees, not reporting outbreaks, employees failing to wear masks or operating indoors when prohibited, she said.
Ferrer estimated that the department is responsible for inspecting 50,000-60,000 businesses and guessed that less than two dozen violations had been appealed to date.
Barger suggested that some owners don’t bother to appeal citations they believe are unfair because they don’t want to irritate an inspector who will continue to monitor their compliance.
Supervisor Hilda Solis focused on workplace outbreaks and making sure that workers are protected, joining Kuehl in calling for a postponement.
“I certainly want to have our businesses come back, but I also want them to play by the rules,” she told her colleagues.
The motion has since been amended to direct inspectors to only consider a fine on a first visit for “the most significant violations.” It also adds “repeated uncured violations,” in addition to significant violations, as a reason to revoke or suspend a public health permit.
The matter is expected to be put to a vote as the only item on the board’s agenda Tuesday other than a closed-session discussion on litigation and personnel issues.