EL CAJON, Calif. – With a new round of coronavirus restrictions coming for local businesses Saturday, all eyes are on El Cajon, where the East County city has taken a more lax enforcement approach to health measures.
In a conversation with FOX 5 Thursday, Mayor Bill Wells stopped short of telling businesses to stay open, defying the public health order, but also echoed the hands-off approach he’s taken throughout the pandemic.
“You got to follow your heart on this one,” he told FOX 5. “As mayor, I can’t tell you to break the law, and I’d never do that, but those of us who continue to get a paycheck should be understanding of those who can’t get a paycheck.”
On Saturday, San Diego County will officially fall into the state’s more restrictive “purple tier” of health restrictions. Restaurants, gyms and places of worship will be forced to operate outside.
But in El Cajon, the city has shied away from actively enforcing such orders during the pandemic. In September, Wells penned an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune titled, “I’m the El Cajon mayor. Here’s why our police have not been enforcing pandemic-related law.”
In the piece, Wells explained that he had called a special meeting of the city council to discuss law enforcement’s approach to COVID-19 closures, and that they decided the city would encourage following the advice of health experts on social distancing, wearing masks and other measures, but that police would not actively enforce pandemic codes for businesses.
Wells and others argued that restrictions had gone too far and harmed too many people by dampening the economy and putting people out of work to justify the health benefits of the measures.
With a new set of restrictions looming this week, brought on by rising case rates, Wells did not indicate the city would change their approach.
“The police chief runs the police department, I don’t meddle in that,” Wells said. “Our city council expressed our desire to not make COVID-related calls a high priority. The police chief has to make his own decisions.”
But the line Wells is walking hasn’t endeared him to some county leaders, who are urging residents to take the new orders seriously.
“Mixed messages like this is what creates a situation that allows spread,” said County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher. “When the public hears that, then the public thinks, ‘Why follow the order? It isn’t serious.’ It’s worth noting that El Cajon has a case county significantly higher than the county average.”
Fletcher said the county is leaning on local law enforcement to give warnings to violators first, and then step in with action if needed. And they could do so with legal penalties, under current law. “These orders could have teeth, could be misdemeanor violations, and citations,” explained Wendy Patrick, a FOX 5 legal expert.
But what if local police don’t crack down on those violating the rules? Could the county step in and pull business licenses?
“Our hands are tied in many regards,” Fletcher said. “Law enforcement has the authority within that jurisdiction, and they can make those calls within themselves.”