Quick Take:

“My officers, we’re past the point of discussion, we’re at the point of enforcement,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills says of anti-mask activities. His comments follow the trespassing arrest of one anti-mask activist by Capitola police in December.

Organized anti-mask events, including people offering maskless “Free Hugs” near Lighthouse Field on weekends, have cropped up locally and nationally since the pandemic began.

But at least one law-enforcement official says anti-maskers’ level of aggression — evidenced by a viral video of maskless people recently descending on Santa Cruz’s downtown Trader Joe’s — has amplified here in recent months, and that police will clamp down if those tactics persist.

“My officers, we’re past the point of discussion, we’re at the point of enforcement,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said.

The Capitola Police Department laid the groundwork for that approach in December when officers arrested an anti-mask activist named David J. Rodriguez for trespassing after he entered the Capitola Post Office without a face covering and postal officials called police, according to documents obtained by Lookout and a review of video of the arrest.

Besides that incident, police and witnesses say that anti-mask activists since September have hand-delivered letters of protest to the homes of Mills and Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel, prompting a brief inquiry by the county sheriff’s office; exchanged words with Santa Cruz cops at a farmers’ market, and, over Valentine’s Day weekend, called the organizer of an outdoor market on the Westside “a Nazi” when she asked them to leave her event.

The name-calling incident happened around the same time as the Trader Joe’s event, a seven-minute-long affair in which more than a dozen maskless people skipped the store’s outdoor line and fanned out indoors amid startled mask-wearing shoppers and employees in the store.

“My concern is that they seem to be getting more aggressive,” Mills said. “Up to this point we’ve tried to avoid giving them any publicity because I think that’s exactly what they’re looking for. At the same time we can’t permit this to continue in this fashion.”

Public health officials and medical experts overwhelmingly agree that masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mandates in California and across the country require residents to wear masks while outdoors and in public places indoors. Protests against those orders have surfaced nationwide, USA Today and other news organizations have reported.

Mills said he received so many inquiries from outraged viewers of the Trader Joe’s video that he wrote a blog post about what it takes to make arrests for trespassing or issue health-order citations for not wearing face coverings. In it he writes: “Ignoring science is their prerogative. Speaking out against the government, their right. We cannot and will not accept this group violating the law intentionally while putting other community members’ health at risk.”

Rodriguez, 38, is among a handful of people who post videos of local anti-mask activities on social media, including the Free Hugs events.

While participants at these events vary, the consensus among law enforcement officials is that the actions are being centrally coordinated, Mills said.

Rodriguez, who has San Jose roots but says he now lives in Santa Cruz, told Lookout Friday that he stages anti-mask events with “a few dozen people” because “there’s a lot of free-minded people over here, you know. Nice, compassionate, conscious people.”

Even though public health officials and the general public have raised concerns that such activities put others at risk, Rodriguez doesn’t seem to see things that way.

“The message to the community is, ‘If you want to wear a mask, then go ahead and wear a mask,’” he said. “‘If you want to get the vaccine, go ahead and get a vaccine.’ I’m not anti-mask. I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m pro freedom of choice.”

Video capturing some of Rodriguez’s Dec. 11 arrest at the Capitola Post Office — and posted by Rodriguez on his YouTube channel — shows a maskless Rodriguez talking to a Capitola police officer near the post office entrance before he heads inside, where another cop appears to ask Rodriguez to step outside.

After some back and forth, during which Rodriguez asks to mail something and speak to the post office manager, the officer tells Rodriguez that he needs to leave or he will be arrested for trespassing. When Rodriguez doesn’t budge, the officer handcuffs him and leads him outside.

Asked about the incident by Lookout on Friday, Rodriguez said he couldn’t go into detail. He did point out that the trespassing case is still open and that people can watch the video for themselves.

In another YouTube video posted shortly after Rodriguez’s arrest, supporters of Rodriguez are pictured in the Capitola Police Department parking lot questioning the legality of the arrest, and, after some time, can be heard shouting at officers.

The exchange ends with one woman yelling “You work for me, we’re your masters … you’re not dismissed,” and another woman shouting through a megaphone, “You are the criminals” before adding “You deserve everything that’s coming to you.”

Lookout’s COVID Today, the latest on COVID-19 developments as they happen, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic this year. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

The video of the Trader Joe’s incident shows more than a dozen people marching into the store without wearing masks and fanning out across the store in clear violation of COVID-19 safety guidelines. That same weekend, on Valentine’s Day, the Lighthouse Field Free Hugs event coincided with the return of the popular West Cliff Outdoor Market that was spawned during last summer’s search for pandemic-appropriate events.

Market manager Kathryn Walsh said when the group learned she and her staff had instructed vendors not to sell to maskless patrons, they said to her “You’re a Nazi.” Walsh said the group also set up their hugging booth along the West Cliff Drive sidewalk “and people were walking into the street to avoid them.”

A group of anti-maskers has penned letters to Mills and others. The most recent stems from a confrontation between Santa Cruz police and the group at the downtown Farmer’s Market, Mills said.

While that letter was sent to the police department through the mail, the same group got the attention of local officials in September by hand-delivering documents to the residences of Mills and Newel, the county health officer. Those documents were passed along to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office for investigation. Mills said they ultimately were dismissed as “legalese, mumbo-jumbo” that was not legally threatening, but the manner in which they arrived was disconcerting.

He said Friday that while he won’t be dispatching extra personnel to surveil potential anti-mask activities this weekend, police will be monitoring public events. “Our officers are prepared to issue citations” if anti-maskers disturb the peace, he said.

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Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...