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Am I really going to get in trouble if I leave my house? How stay-at-home orders are being enforced

Police aren’t pulling over cars or stopping people on the street, but you should still be careful

A swing on a playground is roped off with caution tape during the COVID-19 pandemic in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Matt Mooney, 33, was playing T-ball with his wife and 6-year-old daughter at a park in Brighton, Colorado, on a Sunday in early April when he was approached by police officers enforcing social distancing regulations, ABC News reported. The police said the park was closed, but Mooney said he and his family were complying with posted rules. When Mooney refused to provide his identification, police handcuffed him, according to ABC.

Later, Brighton police apologized in a statement that said, “While the investigation sorts through the different versions of what took place by witnesses who were at the park, it is evident there was an overreach by our police officers.”

While there have been multiple publicized arrests of people flouting public orders to stay home or avoid gathering in large groups, police in most jurisdictions, including Salt Lake City, say they are focusing on education rather than taking a punitive approach to social distancing enforcement.

Detective Greg Wilking, public information officer for the Salt Lake Police Department, said that police are not pulling people over or actively patrolling for large groups. There have been no arrests in the area, even though Salt Lake County has an order that makes it a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, to leave one’s home for a nonessential purpose.

Davis, Weber, Tooele, Summit, Wasatch and Morgan counties have all issued similar stay-home directives, although Utah is one of just eight states without a statewide order.

“We are not taking any kind of enforcement action on that to speak of,” said Wilking. “If people are staying home, staying inside, then we’re all better off — but it’s not ‘Hey, you’re not at home, I’m going to cite you for that.’”

“Some things are enforceable and some things aren’t,” Wilking said.

Reporting violations

Reporting mechanisms vary by city, but in Salt Lake City, residents can notify authorities when they see businesses or people violating “stay safe, stay home ” rules by contacting the police or health department and filling out an online form.

“The purpose of these tools is not to criminally cite people under the County’s Health Order, but to help to continue educating the public,” the city website reads. “We use this information to determine where we need more visual information or where we might need to close a public space.”

Some jurisdictions have taped off playground equipment and shut down public basketball courts and pickleball courts to discourage people from congregating in parks. Wilking said that if Salt Lake police get a call about a big group gathered, officers may show up — wearing a face shield, mask, safety glasses and gloves — and ask the group to disperse.

A playground is roped off with caution tape during the COVID-19 pandemic in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Again, it’s going out and making contact and advising people, explaining why we’re shut down and this is what you need to do,” said Wilking. “We ask them to please comply so we don’t have to go the route of the citation or some kind of fine.”

The Salt Lake County Health Department is responsible for responding to complaints and enforcing restrictions on businesses like restaurants and beauty salons. Spokesman Nicholas Rupp said that so far there have been no citations. The department had received just under 400 complaints, made about 35 in-person visits and provided four written orders to close as of April 14.

“Our intent is not to penalize,” said Rupp. “Our intent is to provide the education about why this public health order is necessary and why it’s important. It’s only going to be those who are egregiously ignoring those requests will be penalized.”

Arrests

In some parts of the country, flagrant disobedience has brought law enforcement action. In Cincinnati, a man named Rashaan Davis, 25, was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after posting a YouTube video of himself at a party, openly defying the state’s stay-at-home order and encouraging viewers to disregard the law as well. At the time of the man’s arrest, his video had more 55,000 views, according to the criminal complaint.

Lt. Steve Saunders, public information officer for the Cincinnati Police Department, said that Davis is an outlier and that the vast majority of citizens are doing their part to stop the spread of the virus.

“We are going to hold people accountable if they violate the law and make sure that we’re ready to enforce laws where they need to be enforced, but at the same time, there to be a helping hand during a difficult time,” said Saunders. “I think you are going to find that everywhere you go across this country.”

According to local news site West Hawaii Today, nine people have been arrested for violation of the state’s stay-at-home order, which can result in up to one year of jail time and a fine of $5,000. On April 2, in Malibu, California, a paddleboarder was arrested after allegedly ignoring lifeguards’ requests to come ashore on a closed beach, according to the Los Angeles Times. And two people who were drinking alcohol on the street in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, were arrested on April 5, for violating the state’s stay-at-home order and refusing to comply with officers’ orders to disperse, according to LancasterOnline.

In Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Daytona Beach, Florida, law enforcement officials have announced plans to use drones to tell people in public places to keep their distance or go home.

“The weather’s getting warmer. It’s getting nicer out. People want to be out and about,” said Saunders. “But when they are not abiding by social distancing guidelines, it puts a lot of people at risk — not just the individuals who are doing that but anyone they might have contact with.”

Misinformation

Law enforcement officers like Sgt. Melody Gray with Utah’s Unified Police Department said they are eager to get the word out to citizens that police are not stopping people in their cars or on the street to ask about social distancing. Rumors and misinformation have been rampant, she said.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories about people being pulled over. Everything like that we’ve looked into turned out to be false,” Gray said. “It’s like the telephone game — the story changes a little bit every time it’s shared.”

Gray said it’s common for a police officer to ask someone where they are going during a stop for a traffic violation, but that doesn’t mean the officer is trying to interrogate the individual about their social distancing habits.

Meanwhile, Gray said the Unified Police Department has had to deal with reports from concerned citizens who don’t understand what Salt Lake County’s “stay safe, stay home” order entails. Recently, the department received a call about a family that was having a picnic.

“People are allowed to do that! They’re allowed to go outside” said Gray. “There’s a lot of confusion out there.”

It’s no wonder there’s confusion however when rules change. On Thursday, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority implemented a rule requiring transit passengers to wear face masks. In a video posted on Twitter Friday by the Philly Transit Riders Union, Philadelphia police officers are seen forcibly dragging a man off a bus, allegedly for not wearing a mask.

The transportation authority immediately reversed the mask rule following the incident, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Miguel Torres, public information officer for the Philadelphia Police Department, said in a statement that the man was removed from the bus after he refused to obey police orders to get off. The man was not arrested or cited and the incident is currently under investigation, the statement says.

Continued confusion

Government officials have sent mixed messages to the public as they’ve sought to communicate the seriousness of social distancing rules without needlessly scaring people.

“The problem is this is really, really murky,” said Wilking. “You’re looking at a lot of different directives coming from different counties, different levels of government, and that makes it difficult.”

Riverside County in California announced a mandate this week requiring residents to wear masks in public, or face a $1,000 fine.

But Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco sparked some confusion when he said in a video statement Monday, “This is a valid order and enforceable by fine, imprisonment or both,” adding, “you will not be stopped or ticketed simply because you are not wearing a mask.”

Similarly, in Utah, when the governor announced a new initiative to collect information from people entering the state via roadways or the Salt Lake City International Airport, citizens were left confused as to whether or not the program was mandatory. While initial reports used the word “required,” Jess Anderson, commissioner of Public Safety, clarified at a Friday press conference that the program is entirely voluntary.

Initially drivers who crossed the Utah border at one of nine designated roadways received an automatic text notification prompting them to fill out a form that asks whether they have been tested for COVID-19 in the past 14 days, whether they have shown symptoms like shortness of breath or a fever, and where they have traveled in the past two weeks.

The text has now been revoked because of technological failures that had alerts going to residents near the borders. The survey itself remains in place and also asks for personal information including phone number and address. Those who arrive at the airport will be given a postcard with a QR code that will take them to the same survey.

“This is a voluntary action we’re calling upon all citizens who drive into the state of Utah, or otherwise land at this at the Salt Lake International Airport to comply with the order by voluntarily going on to the website,” said Anderson.

“We are all in this together,” said Wilking. “Compliance is what we’re asking for. We don’t want to give tickets; we don’t want to be heavy handed. This requires us all pitching in and doing our individual part to make sure we are safe.”