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People wear face coverings (and some do not) while walking in downtown Calexico on Friday, Nov. 20. While face coverings have been required in public places for some time according to state and local health orders, the rules on masks were adjusted recently, along with a number of health orders, as a result of rapidly rising cases of COVID in the state. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

COVID Curfew Enforcement Lax Amid Growing Pandemic Fatigue

It started some weeks ago with state and local public health orders limiting gatherings inside the home hot on the heels of the holidays, but with last week’s tightening of mask regulations and a curfew being instituted, pandemic fatigue is giving way to palpable public anger.

One just needed to walk outside the home after 10 Saturday night, Nov. 21, when the state’s health order went into effect requiring those not conducting essential business to stay home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., to see the curfew was being ignored, even flaunted.

In Imperial neighborhoods, people could be heard lighting off fireworks, as loud parties ensued. In El Centro, cars whipped along city streets unaffected by a call to stay indoors and essentially stay off the road.

What’s more, for reasons varying from “the violation of constitutional rights,” to a lack of personnel to respond to such calls, local law enforcement joined sheriffs and police chiefs up and down the state’s 41 affected counties in the most-restrictive purple tier in refusing to enforce the limited stay-at-home order.

“We are not going to interfere with the normal activities of our community and public,” Deputy El Centro Police Chief Robert Sawyer told the El Centro City Council on Nov. 20. “We do not anticipate pulling cars over at midnight.”

On a more positive note, Sawyer added, “We strongly encourage and believe our community will follow that curfew, with a few exceptions.”

El Centro Police Department Deputy Chief Robert Sawyer addresses the El Centro City Council on the enforcement of the limited stay-at-home order, which is essentially a curfew, from state and local public health officials on Friday, Nov. 21. | VIDEO CAPTURE

The department has continued to follow up on reports of potential health order violations and is appreciative of the community’s vigilance and interest in helping curb the pandemic, he said.

“We really do have a phenomenal community,” Sawyer added. “Our citizens are really taking it to heart.”

For Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo, whose city has been hit hardest in terms of COVID cases since the start of the pandemic, enforcement of the new curfew comes down to manpower, even as the county and all of the state experiences a massive second surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

“It’s going to be really hard to enforce an executive order when you are short-handed and when we have other priority calls for service. We will prioritize the calls, and if we can, we will respond. It’s up to our citizens to step it up and follow the order and police themselves,” Gerardo said Sunday, Nov. 22.

Imperial Police Chief Leonard Barra. | COURTESY PHOTO

In Imperial, however, Chief Leonard J. Barra’s statement issued on the afternoon of Nov. 20 was more unapologetic. It not only touched on the curfew but threw down the gauntlet for calls to the department regarding masks and other issues.

“We would like to assure the public that our officers’ first priority is to educate and inform the community of the new restrictions. To ensure constitutional rights are not violated and to limit potential negative interactions and exposure to our officers, we will not be responding to calls for service solely based on non-compliance with the new order, or physical distancing and mask guidelines,” according to a statement credited to the Imperial Police Department on behalf of Barra.

It is part and parcel of what was heard throughout the weekend, as law enforcement officials in Sacramento, Fresno, Orange, and Los Angeles counties, among a slew of others, stated they would not enforce the curfew.

Local officials like Tony Rouhotas Jr., county executive officer, in numerous recent press conferences has acknowledged pandemic fatigue as being a problem. People are tired of restrictions placed on them, are pushing back in several ways, mostly through noncompliance.

Calexico Chief Gerardo offered his take last week.

“I think it’s come to the point where everyone is extremely mentally exhausted of COVID not going away,” he said.

Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo. | COURTESY PHOTO

Gerardo added people must do their part, even during the holidays when they want to be with their families, but he understands the anger and refusal to comply, even if he doesn’t agree.

The county Public Health Department is trying all sorts of messaging to educate the public on all the health orders amid increasing cases rates and possibly an increasing unwillingness to listen.

Even before the curfew, those tired or wearing masks didn’t like when Gov. Newsom on Nov. 16 announced rules tightening up how they should be worn in public. It went from requiring face coverings in high-risk situations, to being told to wear a mask in almost all public situations, including when sitting at an outdoor restaurant.

For that matter, with Thanksgiving on Thursday, Nov. 26, and Christmas following soon after, the state and local order that no more than three families congregate inside a home, with that gathering further capped in Imperial County with a limit of 16 guests by county Public Health Officer, Dr. Stephen Munday, is a hard holiday pill to swallow for many.

Julio Morales contributed reporting to this story.

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