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Bay Area shuts down due to COVID-19 concerns and Sonoma County seeks an "eye-in-the-sky" enforcement option

click to enlarge Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a press conference on Sunday, March 15.

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a press conference on Sunday, March 15.

News breaks quickly these days.


Over the weekend, Sonoma County officials announced two cases of “community transmitted” Coronavirus, adding to two previous cases residents acquired while traveling outside of the county. On Monday, the county announced two more cases, bringing the total number to six.


In an address on Sunday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom strongly recommended that all bars, wine tasting rooms, nightclubs and breweries in the state close for the coming weeks. Additionally, Californians older than 65 and those with preexisting conditions—the demographics most vulnerable to COVID-19—should isolate themselves at home, Newsom said.


On Monday, six Bay Area counties, not including Sonoma County, issued a “shelter-in-place” order, effective until at least Monday, April 7. As of Tuesday morning, Sonoma County officials had not issued a similar order, but were strongly considering doing so.


The spread of the virus and related business closures are revealing deep, often unexamined economic inequalities in the country. So far, it’s not clear whether government efforts to patch the holes will be anywhere near adequate.


In the North Bay, where the economy is largely based on tourism, entertainment and food services, the impacts are growing, with business owners and their employees facing significant costs.


In an effort to mitigate one of the expected impacts of lost wages, activists around the state are pushing local governments to implement protections for renters and workers.


San Francisco implemented a temporary moratorium on evictions on Friday, March 13, and lawmakers are considering similar legislation at the state level. (The San Francisco legislation specifies that rent payments are delayed until the end of the crisis, not forgiven.) Multiple Sonoma County activist groups have asked local governments to a similar step but, so far, they have not.


In a letter sent to elected officials throughout Sonoma County on Saturday, March 14, the North Bay Organizing Project requested that local governments implement “a moratorium on all evictions for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak; allocate rental assistance for those who will be most impacted economically by this virus; provide emergency shelter to our homeless population a disproportionate number of whom are immunocompromised.”


On Monday, the Sonoma Valley Housing Group sent a similar request for a temporary ban on evictions to local elected officials.


At a press conference on Sunday, hours before Newsom asked bars throughout the state to close, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin acknowledged that she and other elected officials have received requests for a temporary halt of evictions related to COVID-19 in the county, but indicated that the county may wait for the state to take action.


“The first step is really evaluating what is happening from a public health perspective and then evaluating how the impact will be felt throughout all of our community,” Gorin said Sunday, noting that Newsom had been asked to take similar action at the state level.


On Monday, Newsom passed the issue back to local governments. He signed an executive order which, according to a press release, “authorizes local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners, slows foreclosures, and protects against utility shutoffs for Californians affected by COVID-19.”


Crucially, the order does not require local jurisdictions to halt evictions and mortgage payments. The order also “does not relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent,” according to the press release. Instead, if a local government does pass a temporary ban on evictions of their own, rent payments will likely be delayed until after the crisis, not permanently forgiven.


Research shows that even the threat of eviction causes negative mental and physical health impacts.


Furthermore, if evicted, families and workers could wind up living on the street, adding to the state’s already-large population of shelterless people.


Cannabis Crackdown


On March 9, Sonoma County pushed out an email request for qualifications that may strike fear into the hearts of local pot growers still attempting to skirt government regulations in this era of legalized—and increasingly corporatized—cannabis.


Here’s the full announcement:


“The County of Sonoma is seeking to identify a Satellite Imagery Contract so the Code Enforcement Division at Permit Sonoma will be able to identify black market cannabis grows at a much quicker rate. Officers will then be able to drive directly to identified properties and post a notice and order without having to catch growers off guard. This will drastically improve officer safety and expedite field operations,” the announcement states.


A little internet sleuthing reveals an ongoing debate about the legality and ethics of similar eye-in-the-sky programs farther north.


A few days before Sonoma County started seeking a contractor, Humboldt County’s Environmental Impact Reduction Program received an award from the California State Association of Counties (CSAC).


“Now instead of sending staff into the depths of the 4,000-square-mile county to come across grows that are not in compliance, all it takes is a click of the mouse to review current satellite footage,” a CSAC press release praising Humboldt’s “state-of-the-art” enforcement program pronounces.


In the same press release, Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, praises the program, noting that un-registered growers who have flocked to the region since legalization often use pesticides, illegally trim trees and cause numerous other environmental impacts.


Critics of Humboldt’s program highlight other factors at play.


In a letter to elected officials shared on the Redheaded Blackbelt, a popular news site covering the Emerald Triangle, cannabis attorney Eugene "ED" Denson raised some concerns about the program, including invasion of privacy and “extortion” of landowners identified by the satellite imagery.


According to Denson, several code enforcement actions based on information gathered from the county’s “eye-in-the-sky” program are currently being litigated in the Humboldt County Superior Court.


“The program has been a civil rights disaster, and a taste of what life under Big Brother can become,” Denson warns in his letter.


Soon enough, a similar conversation may take place in Sonoma County.


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