The City of Atwater is considering becoming a sanctuary city — but not in the way you may think.

City Council on Monday discussed how Atwater could be a sanctuary city for small businesses to operate amid state-mandated closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

It was Councilmember Brian Raymond who floated the idea, which appears to have gotten some traction. A special meeting will now be held Friday at 12 p.m. in the Atwater City Council chambers regarding a sanctuary city resolution, City Manager Lori Waterman said.

“We can have a sanctuary city for illegals, a sanctuary city for anything,” Raymond said. “Why don’t we become a sanctuary city for small business?”

Raymond told the Sun-Star he got the idea after speaking to a friend prior to attending the City Council meeting. He had been thinking about additional ways to protect small businesses after County Supervisor Daron McDaniel’s idea to declare a local emergency over the economy, Raymond said.

Atwater officials have frequently vocalized frustration over the slow pace of reopening businesses, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Mayor Paul Creighton was the first of Merced County’s mayors to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking that rural areas like Atwater — who were less affected by the pandemic than large urban areas — reopen faster.

Even after the county submitted its plan to the state for advancing quicker through Stage 2 reopening, local officials said it wasn’t enough. Stage 3 businesses like hair salons and churches should also open, they say.

“What I see and what I hear, is that we’re in an economic state of emergency and that’s what we need to act on,” Raymond said.

“We need to take a strong step forward. We need to challenge the governor (and) challenge the state on their unconstitutional rulings, and we need to become a sanctuary city for small business so they know they can operate in peace without having the strong arm of the government coming down upon them.”

What would it look like? Logistics, concerns

Raymond told the Sun-Star his idea is similar to cities like Coalinga, who declared all businesses essential in defiance of the governor’s four stages of reopening. But Atwater would likely be 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, Raymond said. Preventative safety measures would be left to the business owner and patron’s discretion.

Raymond said his only reservation is the state coming after business licenses, which the city doesn’t have the jurisdiction to protect.

“I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna hurt the residents,” he said. “I don’t want the City of Atwater coming after them, and it sounds like the county isn’t coming after them.”

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told the Sun-Star he recently sent notice to the state that, “The Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the state’s COVID restrictions for businesses that they consider essential or nonessential.”

The Sheriff’s Office will only enforce quarantine orders if there is a confirmed positive case of coronavirus, Warnke said.

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

Raymond said he wasn’t sure about possible state penalties to the city.

Next steps

City Attorney Frank Splendorio is working on the specific language for the sanctuary city resolution.

Splendorio stressed that not all sanctuary cities look the same in their force and direction. What Atwater would look like as one is still being fleshed out, he told the Sun-Star.

At a minimum, Atwater’s resolution will express solidarity with local businesses and their concerns, he said. The resolution’s actual muscle is yet to be determined. He said the city will likely take a measured approach in balancing strong support for reopening businesses while operating under county and state limitations.

“Obviously, there’s some competing forces,” Splendorio said.

Creighton advocated for a strong approach in a conversation with the Sun-Star. “Its not symbolic,” he said of becoming a small business sanctuary city. “We mean it, we’re serious.”

“It would look as close to business as normal as before the pandemic, with heavy monitoring and communication and vigilance and testing,” he added.

Raymond urged both those in support of and against the idea to show up Friday and voice their opinions when the resolution comes before City Council.

Support from local officials

City Council members and the mayor vocalized their support for moving forward with Raymond’s idea.

“Everybody’s protected out there except for the folks that are paying the bills to keep the lights on at City Hall,” Creighton said. “And its a bunch of bullshit that we gotta go through this all the time in California when you got homeless problems where they’re congregating 10, 15 of them at a time.”

“They’ve got disease and everything else — Black Plague for crying out loud, you know, and here are business owners trying to cut hair that follow all these guidelines (that) are being stifled.”

McDaniel, whose district encompasses Atwater, commended Raymond’s “creative thinking.”

“I think it’s fantastic,” McDaniel told the Sun-Star. “It’s a group of elected colleagues who are making a step in the right direction. I fully support what they’re trying to do. I think it’s in line with what the county is trying to do.”

McDaniel said he isn’t sure how the logistics would work, but the idea would give confidence to small businesses that the City Council has their back.

“It’s just getting to the point where our hands our tied,” he said. “Let’s throw it out there and see what can happen,” he added.

McDaniel said he doesn’t see major cause for concern about ramifications from the state. He noted that Merced County officials are in direct contact with the Governor’s Office, and the county fits parameters to advance reopening.

McDaniel said he didn’t know what grounds for consequences the state would cite, should the sanctuary city proposal pass.

As of Thursday morning, Merced County’s reopening plan has not been approved by being posted to the California Department of Public Health’s website. At least 15 counties have been posted so far.