SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – San Diego County leaders have stressed education over enforcement regarding the rules and laws surrounding the coronavirus, but there are laws in place to help stop the spread.
“There is civil liability and criminal liability,” says Professor Joanna Sax from the California Western School of Law.
Sax says many of the laws rely on a standard called “reasonable care” to determine liability.
“As long as you are taking precautions reasonably, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be held negligent. That would be the legal term,” Sax says.
For businesses, that means following the rules like posting a safe reopening plan and sticking to it to keep customers safe. It can also mean providing PPE and hand sanitizer for employees.
But for businesses that aren’t using “reasonable care,” San Diego officials have shown the ability and willingness to use the laws to force compliance.
One of the most prominent cases over the last few months involves Boulevard Fitness in University Heights. According to the city, that gym stayed open for indoor workouts for 45 days, violating the county’s rules. City Attorney Mara Elliott threatened Boulevard Fitness with a $2,500 fine for each day, citing “unfair business practices.”
The gym closed after receiving Elliott’s letter and has since reopened while obeying county guidelines for capacity and distancing.
Sax says those kinds of laws work for extreme cases, but may not apply for smaller violations.
“If businesses are not behaving reasonably and they are behaving recklessly, and they have no plans, and they’re letting people in, maybe they should face liability,” Sax says. “Those aren’t the businesses that should be open to the public. They’re doing a disservice to the rest of the community.”
As for individuals infecting other people, the California Health and Safety Code has strict standards.
According to Section 120290, five things all need to happen for someone to be guilty of “intentional transmission.”
The Code says:
“A defendant is guilty of intentional transmission of an infectious or communicable disease if all of the following apply:
(A) The defendant knows that he or she or a third party is afflicted with an infectious or communicable disease.
(B) The defendant acts with the specific intent to transmit or cause an afflicted third party to transmit that disease to another person.
(C) The defendant or the afflicted third party engages in conduct that poses a substantial risk of transmission to that person.
(D) The defendant or the third party transmits the infectious or communicable disease to the other person.
(E) If exposure occurs through interaction with the defendant and not a third party, the person exposed to the disease during voluntary interaction with the defendant did not know that the defendant was afflicted with the disease. A person’s interaction with the defendant is not involuntary solely on the basis of his or her lack of knowledge that the defendant was afflicted with the disease.”
Violators can face fines and up to 90 days in jail.
Sax says other legal statues could also apply.
“You can also be reckless, and you can have depraved indifference towards human life,” she says. “Those don’t require intent… It’s like, ‘I’m infected, and I don’t care. I’m going to go out and live my life.'”
In a situation like that, Sax says it’s essential for people to remember the social contract we all agree to when living in a society.
Sax compares it to driving a car, where we follow the laws not just because we may get a ticket, but also to keep ourselves and others safe.
“I think it’s analogous to what’s happening with COVID-19,” she says. “You have to behave in a society, and people need to wear their masks, and they need to wash their hands, and they need to socially distance, and they need to take precautions. Not just because they could face legal liability but because this is part of joining a society. Part of our liberties requires that we cooperate with each other. The law can get us part of the way there, but it can’t get us all the way there.”