The Skagit County Board of Health will hold a public hearing next month on a proposal to establish civil fines for violations of safety orders issued by the county health officer, including those related to COVID-19.
Under the proposal, first-time violators would be fined $50, with the penalty increasing with subsequent violations. For businesses, fines would start at $250.
To date, Health Officer Howard Leibrand has issued no public health orders related to COVID-19, but rather recommendations, county Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson said.
Johnson, who brought the proposal to the board, called the move “rare,” saying the department chooses to focus first on education rather than enforcement.
“The enforcement side of our work is the method chosen as a last resort,” she said. “There are times that enforcement is necessary.”
The Board of Health voted 4-1 on Tuesday to hold the public hearing, which will be at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 20.
The board consists of the three Skagit County commissioners, as well as two appointed members — Skagit Regional Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Connie Davis and Aaron Katz, a public health expert who teaches at the University of Washington.
If approved, the proposal would give county health officials and local law enforcement officers the ability to issue citations for violating orders issued by the health officer.
As civil actions, the citations would be similar to traffic violations, Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich said.
While the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has the ability to pursue criminal charges for violating orders issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, it has not done so, Weyrich said.
“The vast, vast majority of people in Skagit County are following the governor’s rules and regulations,” Weyrich said. “We’re not out to write people tickets, we just want them to comply with the rules and regulations.”
A civil citation would be a compromise between virtually no penalty for violations of health orders — there is a rather complex process now in place, Leibrand said — and criminal charges that can stay on a violator’s permanent record, Weyrich said.
Along with Weyrich, mayors and police chiefs in Skagit County have encouraged the civil citation pathway, Johnson said.
“None of us want to go straight to enforcement, as we know the importance of first working to gain voluntary compliance,” said Burlington Police Chief Mike Luvera, who is chair of the Skagit County Police Chiefs and Sheriff Executive Board. “But in case we encountered a time where conversation and warning had no impact, our only current enforcement option was a criminal citation and/or arrest. We are in support of more options.”
As the county health officer, Leibrand said he is responsible for protecting the health of county residents. Adding another way to enforce a health order would be another way in which he could do so, he said.
“A time may come when additional tools are needed to provide that protection,” Leibrand said. “This would be an additional tool.”
While most members of the board were hesitant to say whether they would support the proposal, most said they would welcome public input.
Outgoing county Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt, whose term expires at the end of the year, voted against the public hearing.
He said he doesn’t believe civil citations are a good idea.
“I think what it may do is actually have a negative effect,” he said. “You can put this in place, but that will just feed this belief that we’re taking away more individual liberties and we’re going to become a police state.”
Instead, Dahlstedt said, the board should focus on encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 when vaccinations are available to them.
“I think we should be doing everything we can to assure people the vaccine is safe,” he said.