California sheriff warns of fines, jail time for ignoring order to wear masks in public

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, Calif. -- Just days after officials with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Riverside County sheriff went a step further and ordered all residents to cover their faces when leaving home -- warning residents who violate the order they could face fines or even jail time.

“This is a valid order and enforceable by fine, imprisonment, or both,” Sheriff Chad Bianco said in a video statement Monday, April 6.

The county's public health department expanded the governor's stay-at-home order on Saturday in response to "the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases," including the deaths of two Riverside County deputies.

Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the top health officer in Riverside County, said “not everybody’s getting the message” about social distancing while in public, so officials were forced to “change from saying that you should to saying that you must.”

The order also prohibits all gatherings except for family members living in the same home, and police would enforce the regulations “as they deem necessary,” a county statement said. Twenty-five people have died of COVID-19 in the county. On Sunday, officials reported that 30 people at a skilled nursing facility in Riverside tested positive for the coronavirus.

The sheriff added that deputies will not be going out of their way to ticket those who are not wearing face coverings, adding that the purpose of the order is to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19.

"This virus is extremely contagious and is being spread by otherwise healthy people. Many infected individuals who are testing positive exhibit no signs of infection or illness," Bianco said. "However, those individuals are spreading the disease to others who could develop mild to severe symptoms extreme enough to cause death."

The sheriff also reminded the public not to call 911 to report violations, in order to save that line for those who need emergency assistance.

"During this time of uncertainty, anxiety and stress we must all remain calm, show amazing acts of kindness and compassion and exercise some good, old-fashioned common sense," said Bianco. "Cover your faces. Stay at home unless absolutely necessary, and help out your neighbors as much as possible. If you don't do it for yourself, do it for me. Do it for my family. Do it for your family. Stay home, stay safe and together, we will get through this."