Increasingly, it looks like California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) won't have the muscle to impose his latest COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
Over the past few days, the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside Counties have said that their deputies will not be issuing tickets or making arrests of people violating the governor's latest coronavirus restrictions, which went into effect in southern California on Sunday.
"I want to stay away from businesses that are trying to comply the best they can," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to FOX11's Bill Melugin. "They bent over backwards to modify their entire operation to conform to these current health orders, and then they have the rug yanked out from under them, that's a disservice. I don't want to make their lives any more miserable."
Villanueva has said that enforcing the business closures and other restrictions in the governor's new order, which was announced last Thursday, is the job of Los Angeles County's Health Department. L.A. Sheriff's deputies will focus their efforts on "super spreader" events, he said.
Newsom's latest stay-at-home order groups the state's counties into five regions: Southern California, Northern California, the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area, and Greater Sacramento. Once intensive care unit capacity falls below 15 percent in a region, a whole raft of new state restrictions on businesses and individuals snaps into place.
That includes the closure of all onsite dining, indoor or outdoor. Retail stores have to operate at 20 percent capacity. Hotels are closed to tourists. Outdoor playgrounds are closed as well.
People are also generally required to stay home and not gather with anyone outside their own household, save for a few listed exceptions like participating in outdoor religious or political expression, or to "conduct activities associated with the operation, maintenance, or usage of critical infrastructure."
That bans a lot of activities, including pretty low-risk things like having a masked, socially distanced outdoor meeting with a friend. An increasing number of public health experts are questioning the wisdom of some of Newsom's new restrictions.
"Some of the things they're telling you not to do are incredibly low-risk," Emily Oster, a health economist at Brown University, told the Los Angeles Times. "When you are so strict about what people can do, they stop listening."
The arbitrary nature of the new stay-at-home rules has prompted other California sheriffs to say they won't be enforcing the governor's order.
"Compliance with public health orders is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement," said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes in a Saturday press release, stating that deputies under his command won't be dispatched to calls that only involve people violating stay-at-home orders.
Barnes said complying with public health recommendations like masks and social distancing is important, but that "policy makers must not penalize residents for earning a livelihood, safeguarding their mental health, or enjoying our most cherished freedoms."
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco offered even more colorful criticism of Newsom's order.
"These closures and stay-at-home orders are flat out ridiculous. The metrics used for closures are unbelievably faulty, are not representative of true numbers, and are disastrous for Riverside County," he said in a video criticizing the governor's "dictatorial" approach to the coronavirus, which has included threats to withhold state funds from non-compliant counties.
In follow up comments on Twitter, Bianco said that social distancing and mask-wearing were important, but that "this issue is about punitive actions including arrest for violators." In a subsequent interview with the Desert Sun, he said that enforcement isn't necessary as most people will voluntarily follow masking and social distancing rules.
In the same interview, Bianco questioned the effectiveness of masks at controlling the pandemic and said he would not be taking a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ventura and San Bernardino Counties have also said they will rely on their residents' voluntary compliance with the governor's order. The San Diego's Sheriff's Department, by contrast, has said that it will indeed be enforcing the governor's stay-at-home order.
All told, over a third of Californians live in a county with a sheriff promising not to enforce the governor's stay-at-home order.
This is an encouraging sign that Newsom, who has operated with a pretty free hand during most of the pandemic, is finally starting to encounter real resistance to his constantly shifting, often arbitrary rules aimed at controlling California's pandemic.
It's also a welcome change of pace to see law enforcement officers not gleefully jump on the opportunity to enforce yet more rules and regulations. That's in contrast to places like Miami, Florida, where police have proactively enforced mask mandates by setting up "mask traps" and issuing tickets to people not wearing masks outside.
Neither public health nor individual liberty is served by penalizing people for going to the playground or eating a meal outside.