Different rules causing some confusion
People have been walking along San Mateo County beaches, in keeping with guidance from local officials after a shelter in place order. Clay Lambert / Review

In ordering California’s nearly 40 million residents to stay at home, Gov. Gavin Newsom brought myriad county and city public-health directives under a single umbrella in one of the largest restrictions on civic life in American history. But some local officials, lawmakers and businesses remained confused a day later about who’s allowed to go outside and who should go to work in the country’s most populous state.

The breadth of Newsom’s order has so far not been matched with many specifics. Cities and counties were already issuing their own shelter-in-place orders and other directives in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Many of those orders included specific details about which activities are considered essential, and therefore exempt from the order to stay inside. Others spelled out if, and how, the directives would be enforced.

In Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, plumbers, auto mechanics and laundromats are exempt; bars and sit-down restaurants, not. In many counties, including San Mateo, officials said violation of its shelter-in-place directive would be a misdemeanor. One common question: Can I go outside? The answer in San Mateo County is expressly "yes," according to the county ruling. In fact, officials are urging residents to get out for exercise, but not to congregate in groups and to adhere to the six-foot rule.

In rural, sparsely populated Alpine County, public health officials kept their order colloquial: “Contact with restaurants should all be take-out or delivery. There should be no gatherings of any kind. Walk your dog, go for a hike, sit and enjoy the sunshine!”

In issuing his shelter-in-place order, Newsom clearly intended to impose a single statewide policy. “A state as large as ours, a nation-state, is many parts. But at the end of the day we’re one body,” the governor said in a livestreamed address. “There’s a mutuality and there’s a recognition of our interdependence that requires of this moment that we direct a statewide order for people to stay at home.”

A website maintained by the governor’s office to provide the public with information about the COVID-19 pandemic exempts “critical government services, schools, childcare, and construction, including housing construction.” The site offers a few more specific examples of “essential” services, “such as”: gas stations, pharmacies, food: Grocery stores, farmers markets, food banks, convenience stores, take-out and delivery restaurants, banks, Laundromats/laundry services."

The website goes on to say some businesses, “such as” those listed below, are to close: Dine-in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, entertainment venues, gyms and fitness studios, public events and gatherings, convention centers. The order also exempts businesses that are needed to “maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors” as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security. That federal list includes 16 economic sectors, including “commercial facilities,” energy production, water systems and food production.

“Sacramento County is taking the position that its Public Health Order remains in effect and that Sacramento County residents should follow the Order issued by Sacramento County Public Health Officer on March 19, 2020,” spokesperson Kimberly Nava said in an email.

Stephen Duvernay is a senior research fellow at Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center and an attorney with Benbrook Law Group in Sacramento. He said that based on both his interpretation of the governor’s decree and the way past orders have been interpreted, “the order leaves room for local governments to impose further restrictions consistent with the state standards.

“Just as important as the reach of the governor’s authority is how he chooses to exercise it,” he said. “The governor is asking us all to use common sense and for local officials to use their best judgment in implementing the statewide standards.“

This cooperative exercise of authority is critical, since the demands and resources of urban centers like Los Angeles or San Francisco may differ from those in the state’s rural counties,” Duvernay continued. “No one in law enforcement wants to be arresting people for walking their dog right now.”

CalMatters.orgis a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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