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Atwater is now a business ‘sanctuary city’ during coronavirus pandemic. What does it mean?


Atwater residents gave City Council a standing ovation and cheers Friday when they unanimously passed a resolution to make Atwater a sanctuary city for all businesses to open amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What does this mean for Atwater businesses?

“The City of Atwater is not going to go out and enforce any of the shelter in place orders by the state of California,” Mayor Paul Creighton told the Sun-Star. City police and code enforcement will not interfere with businesses that reopen ahead of state guidelines, he said.

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“But if you do have a state (business) license, that’s between you and the state of California,” Creighton said, noting that the city has no jurisdiction over these licenses.

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke recently told the Sun-Star that his office is on the same page. “The Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the state’s COVID restrictions for businesses that they consider essential or nonessential,” he said.

The City of Atwater claims 12 of Merced County’s 200 total cases Friday according to County Public Health.

The sanctuary city resolution affirms the city’s commitment to fundamental Constitutional rights. Local officials and residents in attendance made clear their belief that these rights have been stripped recently due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

“We have to base our decisions on the Constitution,” said Atwater business owner Chris Coffelt, who brought copies of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Amendments for each City Councilmember.

“If you receive an order from the governor telling us that we can’t open our business, that’s an illegal order. It’s unconstitutional,” he added.

Councilmember Brian Raymond, who thought of the idea, recently told the Sun-Star the plan is similar to cities like Coalinga, who declared all businesses essential in defiance of the governor’s four stages of reopening. But Atwater is likely the first to use the term sanctuary city in this way, he said.

The thought is that all businesses could reopen with modifications, if they so wish. Preventative safety measures would be left to the business owner and patrons’ discretion.

This means businesses like hair and nail salons that are currently excluded from the governor’s staged reopening may open without retaliation from local law enforcement.

Churches can reopen, too. The City of Atwater is considering them nonprofits, Creighton said.

“I’ve never been more proud to sit here and support this community than I have today,” said Councilmember Cindy Vierra at Friday’s special meeting.

Atwater receives local support, some criticism

Creighton estimated that at least 200 people attended from the city and elsewhere.

“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I’ve never seen that kind of turnout for the City of Atwater.”

Social distancing measures kept the number of attendees within the Council Chambers down. More people congregated in the hall and area outside City Hall. Hand sanitizer and masks were available.

At least 20 individuals spoke during public comment — with a clear majority staunchly in favor of reopening.

“I get emotional on this,” said Donald Covington, president of the Old Town Atwater Association. “People are starving. Two family members have two different businesses with small children and no income. We need to do this today.”

Republican Kevin Cookingham, who is challenging 16th Congressional District incumbent Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, vocalized his solidarity with Atwater.

As did Merced County Supervisor Daron McDaniel, whose district covers Atwater. “The folks in this room elected us to represent them, and our governor took that away from us,” McDaniel said, thanking City Council for its “bold move.”

Just one speaker questioned the city’s readiness to reopen.

Caleb Hampton pointed out that while city officials have said business owners and residents are prepared to operate safely, he saw little evidence of that at the meeting. Many people touched the lectern without it being sanitized, few were social distancing in the overflow hall and many were not wearing face masks, he said.

Hampton asked the City Council whether the resolution is merely symbolic or actually gives the okay to defy state orders.

“If the first, then we are wasting time, resources and endangering everyone who has met here to discuss this issue,” he said. “If the second, that means the City Council is assuming the state’s responsibility. So what steps will you take to ensure that small businesses are protecting their workers and their patrons?”

Merely trusting small businesses to operate safely on their own does not adequately take into account the health and safety of Atwater, Hampton said. He received a light smattering of applause.

Other county officials have recommended compliance with state orders, warning of jeopardized funding opportunities and future punitive actions to counties that defy the governor.

But Creighton said he is skeptical.

“There’s never gonna be any money coming from the governor,” he said, citing California’s projected $54.3 billion budget deficit due to the coronavirus pandemic. “I say we focus on saving ourselves.”

Creighton said he hasn’t heard anything about the sanctuary city resolution from Merced County, other than complaints that Atwater is moving too fast. He said the state has been silent.

“We’ll continue to be the leader of the pack if we have to,” he said.

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