July 2, 2020 | The Dangers of Inconsistency in Fresno County COVID-19 Regulations

Future Ford of Clovis. Photo from their Facebook page.

By Emily Brandt

July 2, 2020

Since March 14, 2020, I have observed a variety of what I would call “community cultures” across the City of Fresno, reaching up into the City of Clovis, into the ambiguous area where some schools in Clovis Unified are on land owned by the City of Fresno. For example, these community cultures engage in different degrees and standards of self-education through the range of pandemic media. The public–locally and nationally–has not had a monolithic response to complying with preventive action by sheltering-in-place, practicing social-distancing, and wearing masks. 

It’s clear some in the City of Fresno would not be following any of the preventive measures without Governor Newsom’s March 4, 2020 State of Emergency Order, the June 18, 2020 State of California Health and Human Services Agency California Department of Public Health, “Guidance for the Use of Facial Coverings” and Mayor Brand’s March 19, 2020, Shelter-in-Place Order for the City of Fresno, which was extended through May 31, 2020, and modified. Additionally, there has been a national focus on COVID-19 death statistics and on the questionable ways healthcare companies managing medical facilities have put healthcare workers at risk, forcing them to improvise and adapt to less than optimal professional medical working conditions.

Based on multiple observations, the further one goes from the southern tip of Fresno to the northernmost point, reaching Clovis, the fewer masks one sees and the less social-distancing one encounters at stores, restaurants and other businesses. Comparing three Save Mart grocery stores is a case in point: at the Clinton and Brawley Save Mart, one rarely sees a customer without a mask who is pushing the six-foot boundary. The same is true of the Save Mart on Ashlan and West. When large numbers of customers hit the store at one time, the store employees step into place and limit the number of customers allowed in the store at a time. All carts are cleaned after each use.

The Facade of the Save Mart at Clinton and Brawley Ave in Fresno.

However, the Save Mart on Bullard and West is another story. Very few customers wear masks and there is no implementation of the six-foot spacing in the checkout line. I have never seen a customer turned away at the door for not wearing a mask. I have seen customers, mostly teenagers, not go into the Save Mart on Ashlan and West because they had no masks; their friends who did have masks did go in. The unmasked teens waited patiently outside. Employees in all three stores complied fully with the Covid-19 health safety measures of cleaning carts, masks, etc.

None of this is particularly surprising given the strong differences in political views generally between people in North and South Fresno. Every pandemic has been a very political subject. They shouldn’t be because the science of disease etiology and epidemiology are undeniable. Despite observing these differences in compliance throughout the City of Fresno with regard to the governor’s mandates as well as the guidelines by the CDC and the Fresno County Department of Public Health, my experience yesterday at Future Ford of Clovis really surprised me.  

I took my car in for its regular service. As I walked into the building, I noticed that the service staff who process cars, tagging them and collecting keys, etc. were not wearing masks. In fact, there were no masks or hand sanitizer anywhere to be seen. I asked my service clerk what the policy of the store was now that Governor Newsom had announced on June 18th the mandatory wearing of masks (with a few exemptions). She said that she didn’t think it was mandatory; in fact, she was quite sure there hadn’t been a final decision issued yet. I told her that it had been final and that it applied to everyone (minus the exemptions) in the state of California. 

A multi-colored cloth mask with floral design. Photo from amazon.com

After chatting about the all-around risks to not wearing them, I asked about the mask policy of Future Ford of Clovis. She said it was a matter of personal preference. Throughout the experience, the conversation was friendly and informative. As I walked over to the waiting area, I noticed nary a mask in the finance department, in sales, or anywhere in the store. At one point, I counted two customers out of a total of 10 visible to me wearing masks. I decided to determine for certain the policy of the store and talked to the receptionist, who was also sans mask. She seemed surprised by the question as if she hadn’t been asked it before; she called the manager over.  

I put this question to the manager: Governor Newsom just issued a mask mandate for all people interacting in public with a few exemptions so why isn’t your business complying with this? It seemed clear that he did not know that Governor Newsom had indeed issued such a mandate. He explained further that the company that owns Future Ford of Clovis believes that wearing masks and practicing social distancing are matters of personal preference for employees as for customers. 

I was shocked! “The state governor’s orders supersede all other orders by local jurisdictions,” I said. He disagreed. I blurted out that people who don’t comply are breaking the law. He even went so far as to volunteer that his wife has a compromised immune system and wears a mask. When I pushed him on the fact that by not wearing a mask himself, he was exposing her to whatever he was exposed to, he did not seem to make the connection that he was increasing his wife’s risk of exposure.

Cartoon of the COVID-19 virus and the profile of a person with COVID-19 in their lungs. Photo by I Stock via EverydayHealth.

I then talked to an employee who was walking around with a cloth and spray bottle. He looked at the surfaces on the counter around the coffee machines where some cookies were spread out for us to enjoy, but not seeing any crumbs or spills, declined to wipe anything. He passed tables with stools and again, seeing nothing on the surface, didn’t wipe it. He then noticed that no one was sitting at the computers and didn’t wipe the keys either. I asked him how he felt about not wearing a mask and being around others who don’t wear masks. He said he hadn’t worried about it but was beginning to lately. We conversed a little about the risk of carrying it home and he seemed to think that it would be better for his family if he were to wear one.  

I began to try to get answers to this simple (it seemed to me) question: Whose authority supersedes whom? Does the City of Clovis or even Fresno County’s authority supersede that of the California Head of State? Does a state mandate require enforcement? Which agency would be the enforcing agency? Would it be the sheriff’s department, the local police, the county health department–which one? I set out to find out. It’s surprising how many information providers for the State of California did not have the answer. 

I thought the Fresno County Department of Public Health would know. They sent me to Clovis Code Enforcement, located in the Planning and Neighborhood Services Department. They were not answering their phones, so I left my question on the answering machine. I took a telephonic detour to the Office of the City Manager directly to see if they’d implemented their own mask, shelter-in-place and social-distancing mandate. 

Flyer from the Fresno County Department of Public Health advising people to wear a mask and maintain a distance of 6 ft whenever possible.

I spoke with Diana Belden who told me that there is no mandate on these matters by the City of Clovis. It “recommends” following the Governor’s mandate, but nothing stronger and they will not issue misdemeanors, fines or any other type of enforcement of the state mandate. I asked Ms. Belden if the City of Clovis was not concerned by the rising number of cases and that not implementing these measures would increase the spread. She said there was no way of knowing [whether or not using masks and failing to practice social-distancing would increase the number of cases]. Once again, I was surprised. I said, but we do know that. That is why these measures have been implemented. She didn’t respond. 

I then called the State of California Covid-19 Information Line phone number which I got from the Office of the Governor’s switchboard. They directed me to the Fresno County Department of Public Health, Media Department, Sim Dhillon. He gave me two concrete steps to carry out when encountering non-compliance with the new state mandate.  

  1. Contact the local Code Enforcement Department. (I did call Clovis’ responsible department; no one was answering the phone throughout the morning. I left a message.)
  2. Report the business to the Fresno County Department of Public Health Complaint Line at 559.600.3200. They will liaison with the business informing them of the state mandate and the requirements for care of facilities, employees and customers. This all, however, falls short of enforcement. (I reported the business. I didn’t enjoy doing this, since they have always had very good customer service, but this could be putting the health of a lot of people at risk.)
Fresno County COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard from the Epidemiology Program at the Fresno County Department of Public Health

I received a call from Corporal Berna of the Clovis Police Department in reply to my phone message left at the Planning and Neighborhood Services Department which oversees code enforcement. I asked him about the policy of the City of Clovis on implementing Governor Newsom’s mandate. He explained that “this is a matter for the Fresno County Department of Public Health [citing the number given above].” The City of Clovis assumes no responsibility for enforcement of any of Governor Newsom’s mandates because they consider health mandates to be the responsibility of the Fresno County Public Health Department, not law enforcement or code enforcement departments of the City of Clovis since the lifting of the Emergency Order.

Despite the fact that “[u]nder state law, residents who violate the new requirement could be charged with a misdemeanor and potentially face a financial penalty, according to a representative for the Newsom administration.”, sheriff’s departments from five California counties report that they will not be enforcing the new mask mandate: Calaveras, Fresno, Orange, Sacramento and Tulare counties. Cases have been rising throughout the state, especially in the 13 counties Newsom has put on a watchlist: Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Contra Costa, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Stanislaus and Tulare.

I encourage readers to follow the above procedure because this is one way we, the public, can carry our own weight–without confrontation–to protect ourselves, our community, our essential workers in foodservice and factories, delivery workers and farmworkers who are forced to expose themselves, and, of course, our healthcare workers from an undue increase in positive Covid-19 cases and, ultimately, from a higher loss of life and the unnecessary extension of the period of economic, social and personal suffering. 

A new mural to honor doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals was completed by Fresno artist Jason Esquivel in May 2020 at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno. Photo by ABC 30 Action News.

Author Update: Apparently, either my complaint to the Fresno County Public Health Department or my questions to the manager at Future Ford of Clovis led to a change of practice. On Thursday, June 25th, 2020, I received a call from the manager who explained to me that Future Ford’s lawyer had been brought into the picture and the company implemented the wearing of masks and other health precautions in the guidelines the very next day after my ordeal! Fortunately, there had been no need for confrontation. I do encourage our community to pursue matters without pressure or judgment in efforts to make our community safer.

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