Refuseniks’ COVID-19 rage tempers enforcement

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT –  ​Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal has said that unlike some county sheriffs, he would enforce further COVID-19 restrictions but he’s also said that “violent acts” are becoming more frequent and deputies will use discretion to prevent deadly force situations.

​The acceleration of coronavirus spread and reactions to the restrictions that aim to limit it were discussed during an update to the Board of Supervisors at its December 8 meeting.

Supervisor Steve Madrone noted that some county sheriffs have said that they won’t enforce new restrictions on business and social activities. Madrone said that given the prevalence of disease, “This is not the time to be backing off of enforcement.”

Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal.

​Asked if he’ll enforce restrictions, Honsal said he will. But he also suggested that doing so has to be done carefully because people are becoming prone to violent behavior.

​“If you send a deputy sheriff in to enforce a stay at home order, what happens if someone refuses – and now we’re going to use force against someone who’s not wearing a mask in public?” he said. “And that could force a deadly force confrontation, who knows, and over what?”

​Honsal said he’s instructed deputies to use discretion. “As we see throughout the county, we do have escalating violent acts that are occurring throughout the county and we do have escalating crime that is occurring, all the way from Orick to Alderpoint,” he continued. “Essentially, we are spread thin and we are doing our best.”  

Fear of confrontation

The county is in the state’s highest risk category, which is color-coded as purple. Places like restaurants, gyms and places of worship can’t be open for indoor use, retail businesses have to operate at 25 percent of capacity and the county is under a 10 p.m. state-imposed curfew.

Under a recently-launched state system, further restrictions are imposed if a region’s ICU capacity falls below 15 percent. Humboldt’s ICU bed availability fell to 10.7 percent at the end of last week but the northern region’s ICU capacity percentage was at 26.6 percent.

Considering the high stakes, acts like refusing to wear a mask are leading to confrontations. Madrone compared not wearing a mask in public spaces to brandishing a “deadly weapon” and Supervisor Mike Wilson said he continues to observe it.

Wilson described an atmosphere of fear and potential conflict.

“People feel threatened,” he said, illustrating the point by describing a recent video of a maskless Eureka supermarket customer “freaking out” when other customers called her on it.

“Luckily there were a lot of people there but a single person may not say something to that person because they’re afraid of their reaction, they’re afraid of the confrontation that could come from that,” Wilson continued. “And then they hear about people becoming violent.”

Not wearing a mask in public spaces is “just really trolling people and kind of terrorizing them and making them feel threatened because they don’t know what to do,” Wilson said.

‘Shocking’ spread

Measures like mask-wearing are increasingly crucial to protect public health and prevent further economic impacts. Dr. Ian Hoffman, the county’s newly-hired health officer, warned that once coronavirus accelerates, it takes off.

Hoffman noted that it took about 10 months for the county to reach 1,000 COVID-19 cases. “Now where are we? The projected time to go from 1,000 to 2,000 is just over a month from now,” he continued. “If that sounds shocking, it should sound shocking … that’s just the nature of this disease, it goes up exponentially as it spreads in our community.”

But Hoffman also said the county is readying for vaccine distribution and it’s expected that health care workers and those in long term care facilities and other high risk settings will soon get the first round of doses.

Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 is happening “in multiple settings across the county,” Hoffman said. A hefty block of cases is the 72 – and counting -- that have been confirmed among residents and staff members of the Granada Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Eureka.

‘Death sentence’

Disease spread among vulnerable residents can quickly lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. Hoffman said the Granada outbreak could “turn very quickly” and the county could “go to doubling our death rate easily in the next week or two.”

He added, “To a degree, not wearing a mask is like putting a death sentence on some of these elderly folks who are in long term care facilities.”

During a Dec. 11 media availability video, Deputy Health Officer Dr. Josh Ennis said the Granada cases “are not driving the current, cumulative totals over the same time period” and only account for about 30 percent of last week’s daily totals.

“So it’d be really misleading for anyone to conclude that what’s happening at this facility is driving all of our numbers here,” he continued.  

 On Dec. 11, 36 more cases were confirmed and the county’s total stood at 1,231 cases. Two additional hospitalizations brought the county’s total to 56. There was also an additional death last week, bringing that total to 10.  

Limited Vaccine Supply

Federal emergency use approval for the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine was issued on Dec.11. Asked during the video about local vaccine availability, Ennis said the county has over 10,000 health care workers who are first in line to be vaccinated and “we’re looking at allotments that fall well short of that very early on.”

The next in line, elderly residents with medical conditions, may not be vaccinated until sometime next month, he continued.  Vaccine allotments might be shipped to the county this week, Ennis said, but “supply will be very limited” at first.

If vaccines are effective, mass or “herd” immunity will eventually be achieved, new infections will be minimized and the pandemic’s pall on social activity will be lifted. Ennis said he’s heard some experts say that could happen as early as June of next year.

“I think that’s optimistic,” he continued. “I think that to be more realistic, the earliest we can probably see that occur might be in the fall.”

It could take longer. “There’s a lot of unknown here,” said Ennis.


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