A sign encouraging customers to practice social distancing to prevent spreading the coronavirus. (Photo via Alabama Extension/Flickr)

With Contra Costa County falling back into the most restrictive category of COVID-19 business and social gathering guidelines, District Attorney Diana Becton knows her office will be seeing more complaints about businesses and individuals flouting the rules.

To that end, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office has set up a task force to educate merchants and others about the rules, and to investigate complaints if needed.

So far, Becton told the county Board of Supervisors this week, it’s been more guidance and less punishment.

“We are noticing an uptick in complaints” about businesses ignoring restrictions on mask-wearing, social distancing, customer capacity and other directives spelled out in Contra Costa Health Services health orders, Becton said.

When one business ignores such directions, she and others said Tuesday, that hurts others who play by the rules.

“It’s something we’ll have to address, likely in a much more rigorous manner,” said Becton, who noted only one case so far has become a full-fledged investigation.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, she said, there will certainly be more. “We do take these complaints very seriously,” she said.

Thanks to a surge in new coronavirus cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Monday that 41 of California’s 58 counties — Contra Costa among them — would go into the “purple tier” in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy plan, the most restrictive level in the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Contra Costa County health officials implemented many of those purple-tier restrictions last week. They include closure of indoor restaurant dining rooms, wineries, gyms, movie theaters, indoor playgrounds and offices of nonessential businesses. In addition, houses of worship cannot hold in-person services indoors.

Most retail stores, malls and libraries can open at 25 percent capacity, and grocery stores can open at 50 percent capacity. Closed to the public completely, indoor or outdoor, are amusement parks, bars and breweries, and distilleries.

Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said she has heard complaints about “bad actor” businesses that thumb their nose at the rules — something that’s both a health hazard and is unfair to businesses that obey the health order.

Supervisor Diane Burgis said, “If people are not complying, we have to take it to the next level.

Added Mitchoff, “We’ll have to take more of a ‘stick’ approach than a ‘carrot’ approach.”

Becton also told the supervisors Tuesday that her office has been working to reduce the number of misdemeanor cases it prosecutes. That effort came after the presiding Contra Costa County Superior Court judge asked Becton to cut back on such filings to help reduce the court’s caseload.

Becton said her office has stopped prosecuting many “low-level” cases like minor drug possession or first-time theft offenses involving items worth $300 or less.

Instead, Becton said, those offenders are more often referred to drug treatment programs, diversion programs that help keep people out of the justice system or to “restorative justice” programs. Some of these are carried out virtually, Becton said, given the pandemic.

Though she didn’t have specific numbers for the supervisors for how many fewer misdemeanor cases are being prosecuted, Becton said she will return with them in the near future.

The effort to help unclog the courts pleased the supervisors, though Supervisor Candace Andersen asked for clarification on what generally gets prosecuted and what doesn’t. She noted the national news coverage of looting in Walnut Creek and nearby areas received in early June.

“We were getting a lot of inquiries about, ‘So, people can just steal and there are no consequences?'” Andersen said.

Becton reiterated that looting cases are among those that will be prosecuted.