Enforcing the shutdown: Law enforcement grapples with policing stay-at-home orders, social distancing, quarantines

Kevin Johnson and Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is no longer asking.

He’s directing residents to stay home to avoid a larger outbreak of the coronavirus. And his unvarnished warning has had real-world consequences.

Authorities have charged at least two people in recent days with violating bans on public gatherings of more than 10 people – an offense that could result in a year in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both. Since last week, police agencies across the state have responded to 597 calls reporting potential violations of Hogan's orders, Maryland State Police reported Thursday.

“It was time,” Hogan said this week, “to take more aggressive action.”

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The governor’s declaration mirrors a struggle across the country to enforce a patchwork of new stay-at-home orders, social-distancing directives and quarantines imposed in an effort to contain the march of a deadly virus that had claimed more than 5,000 lives as of Thursday. 

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has issued a flurry of self-quarantine orders, calling for visitors from heavily-infected states and cities to self-isolate for 14 days or risk 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In Florida, authorities charged the pastor of a megachurch with violating local orders prohibiting groupings of more than 10 people.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said he has no regrets about taking action against the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne.

“He left us with no choice,” Chronister said, referring to the weekend church gathering that drew between 400 and 500 worshipers. “We stopped just short of begging him not to put people’s lives in danger.”

Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River Church, was arrested after police say he violated a safer-at-home order by holding services with hundreds of people in attendance.

The potential jeopardy, police officials and analysts said, doesn't apply only to the suspected offenders. As law enforcement becomes more engaged in policing the new coronavirus-related prohibitions, they are also risking exposing themselves to infection.

More than 1,000 New York Police Department officers have been infected. In Detroit, hundreds of officers have been quarantined and the police chief has tested positive; in Houston 130 officers have been in isolation and at least a dozen have been infected.

"Law enforcement is being asked to decide what is the greater good," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. "The best outcome is to get people to voluntarily comply. Unfortunately, we're just on the front end of this thing. I fear the public's patience is going to be stretched as time goes on. If there ever was a time to put community policing into practice, now is the time."

The popular enforcement strategy, which relies heavily on relationship-building between police and local neighborhoods to mediate disputes, has never been more crucial, said Art Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

"It's in everybody's best interest to get voluntary compliance, and most of us are trying to to approach it that way," said Acevedo, who also serves as Houston's police chief. "We should only use the hammer (arrests or citations) as a measure of last resort. I don't know of any department that has taken a different approach. We're trying to build bridges, not tear them down."

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'Countless lives in jeopardy'

A livestream can help distribute content to the masses. Joseph Stoute, a multimedia technician, directed a livestream for congregants at a church in Brooklyn, on March 22, 2020 amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Chronister, the Florida sheriff whose deputies arrested the pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church on Sunday, said he provided Howard-Browne "every opportunity" to avoid the spectacle of a police action.

Starting last Friday, the sheriff said his office contacted the church after learning that it was inviting congregants to weekend services, in violation of the county's ban on large public gatherings. Chronister said the discussions continued through the weekend and included a meeting between sheriff's office officials and church leaders.

"He (the pastor) left us no choice but to exercise our law enforcement authority," Chronister said, referring to a gathering that swelled to an estimated 400 to 500 worshipers.

"This had nothing to do with the freedom of religion or the right to worship," the sheriff said, adding that the church has the technology to livestream its services or broadcast them on television. "There was simply no reason to put countless lives in jeopardy."

Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing Howard-Browne, said the county order banning large gatherings including "faith-based events," was overly "broad" and open to interpretation.

"Pastor Howard-Browne and the church took extra precautions for the church meeting," the law firm said, noting that church officials "enforced the six-foot distance between family groups in the auditorium as well as the overflow rooms."

Officials said all staffers wore gloves, and "every person who entered the church received hand sanitizer."

"The church spent $100,000 on a hospital grade purification system set up throughout the church that provides continuous infectious microbial reduction that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the coronavirus family," the firm stated.

Chronister remains unswayed.

"Shame on all of them for making us do our job," the sheriff said.

Churches in Florida and across the country are expected to draw even more law enforcement scrutiny in the midst of the Easter season. But policing the gatherings may have been made more difficult this week when some state officials, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, declared religious services as "essential" activities.

Abbott, the Texas governor, also has left the door open to religious services.

"If religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, they should be conducted consistent with the guidelines from the president and the (Centers For Disease Control) by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the Texas guidelines state.

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Enforcement sporadic

Across the nation, police enforcement has been sporadic as states and localities continue to rely on most residents to comply voluntarily with orders to stay at home and avoid gathering in groups.

But increasingly, some states are patrolling their borders to stop travelers from entering if they do not have “essential” reasons. That’s particularly the case near New York and in states that draw vacationers, such as Florida and Hawaii.

At least 11 states have orders in place directing most non-residents to self-quarantine for 14 days after entering. Another seven states target travelers from particular states, such as New York.

In Hawaii, violators of the stay-at-home order face some of the stiffest penalties on the books to date: fines of up to $5,000 and a year in jail. Police in Honolulu have issued dozens of citations and made at least two arrests, mostly aimed at people gathering in public parks, according to local media reports.

In Florida, which at first targeted only counties in the southeast part of the state before issuing a statewide order Wednesday, checkpoints have been set up on interstate highways. Violators could be fined up to $500, jailed up to 60 days, or both.

"A social gathering in a public space is not an essential activity," DeSantis' order said, following weeks in which the state's beaches had remained open and crowded. "Local jurisdictions shall ensure that groups of people greater than ten are not permitted to congregate in any public space."

Washington State, which saw the nation’s first cluster of coronavirus illnesses and deaths, has a 'see something-say something' policy. Residents are invited to complete online forms detailing suspected violations by local businesses operating when they should be closed. The state threatens violators with citations, suspension notices, revoked business licenses – even criminal charges.

Some states that order out-of-staters to quarantine themselves for 14 days have drawn complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union for violating travelers' rights.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s order cast a wide net, particularly targeting travelers from “Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Italy, and China.”

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo initially targeted New Yorkers, but objections from the ACLU led her to expand it to anyone entering the state. State police and the National Guard stopped cars and checked the state’s major airport, train stations and bus depots.

Some people have found themselves under arrest for violating coronavirus regulations:

In New Jersey, two Lakewood men were charged with maintaining a nuisance for staging large weddings, and more than a dozen property owners were ticketed for oversized groups.

In New York, the owner of a Brooklyn bar was arrested when more than a dozen people were found drinking and gambling inside what appeared to be a closed facility. Among the charges: reckless endangerment.

A shadow court system

At the end of February, the Texas judiciary began preparations for a "storm" that is expected to continue ravaging the country for weeks, if not months.

"We quickly began to realize that we needed to move on a number fronts," said David Slayton, director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, noting the early global spread of the coronavirus.

Since then, the state has created a kind of parallel court system to handle potential cases arising from quarantine violations and isolation orders now in effect across the state.

A cadre of 31 trial court judges and 25 appellate court justices have been assembled to consider cases. Slayton said all have been provided training by the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center. Another 250 attorneys have been identified to serve as quasi public defender system for suspected offenders, should the need arise.

Noncompliance with public health control orders are Class B misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $2,000 fine. Penalties could rise to a year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine if suspects resist or evade arrest.

So far, Slayton said, there has been little need, as only one quarantine violation case has emerged in the Houston area. The case was ultimately resolved after the suspect tested negative for the virus.

"We have not had to use the hammer yet," said Acevedo, the Houston police chief. "Most people recognize what we're dealing with and they are getting it."

In recent weeks, Acevedo said officers have been in the streets dispersing larger gatherings and encouraging others to keep their distance.

"So many people are losing jobs on a daily basis as a result of this; we don't want to make their situations worse," the chief said.

But if there is a need to bring a heavier response, Acevedo said police will not flinch.

"We can't opt out of police work," he said.

Last weekend in Chicago, police made a wrenching decision to "expedite" a funeral service at a local church that had drawn up to 60 people, many of them elderly.

Police said they observed many "drinking from the same spiritual cup."

"Given the public health impacts and the current stay at home order, officers expedited the completion of the funeral service and dispersed patrons," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement. "This is sincerely the last thing we want to do, but public health during this climate is vastly important for everyone."

Police made no arrests and issued no citations.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: police threaten fines, jail for breaking stay-home orders