Bay Area businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks rarely faced finesAugust 2, 2021
The overwhelming majority of Bay Area workplaces that reported COVID-19 outbreaks never faced any enforcement actions for possible violations of public health orders, a Bay Area News Group analysis reveals.
The Bay Area counties that actively enforced COVID-19 orders — and not all counties did — primarily policed businesses that drew customer complaints, public records and interviews with officials indicate. Under state rules, these counties were also collecting information about workplace outbreaks but rarely used that information to investigate potential violators.
And in Santa Clara County, which had the state’s most robust enforcement of public health orders, officials intentionally avoided issuing fines to some workplaces that had outbreaks — a decision they insist was necessary to encourage businesses to report and help contain viral hotspots.
As a result, stores and restaurants that drew the ire of customers for violations such as failing to post social distancing guidelines sometimes faced thousands of dollars in fines. But employers that failed to enforce mask rules and other critical orders — and saw COVID spread among their employees — could avoid disciplinary action.
The disparity strikes some employers as vastly unfair.
“How are you going to tell me that my fines are justified when we had people with literal outbreaks that couldn’t get shut down or fined?” said Freddie Jackson, owner of San Jose’s Enso nightclub, who was fined more than $40,000 for social distancing violations although he says he knows of no employees or customers who got COVID at his bar.
The news group’s analysis shows:
- In Santa Clara County, 264 COVID-19 outbreaks were reported over the past year but only 14 worksites were fined. The county issued a total of more than 650 notices of fines to businesses between August 2020 and March 2021– nearly all of them to businesses where no outbreaks had been reported.
- In San Mateo County, 112 outbreaks were reported at businesses, but none of them were fined; by comparison, the county issued 41 notices of fines to businesses, none of which had outbreaks. In Contra Costa County, no fines were issued to the 22 businesses that reported outbreaks, while 53 notices of fines were given to businesses with no reported outbreaks.
- Compounding the disparity, Cal/OSHA, the primary workplace safety regulator at the state level, also lagged in targeting businesses with outbreaks — it cited just 12 workplaces that reported outbreaks for COVID-19 violations across the three counties. Eight were in Santa Clara, ranging from a Los Altos supermarket to a waste-sorting facility in San Jose. Cal-OSHA has been criticized for lax enforcement of COVID safety risks across the state.
Experts who reviewed the news group’s data said it illustrates a failure to target enforcement where it is most needed to ensure public safety.
“Over time, in a pandemic, what that means is you’re not really identifying the bad…