Lacking Money and Power, Authorities Barely Enforce Virus Rules
When Ohio State University in Columbus held a pandemic-conscious virtual commencement ceremony this month, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook gave a video address to a safely spaced crowd in parking lots outside.
The appearance of caution was deceiving.
The real action was blocks away, said Emily Foster, a university retiree: Student parties raged on lawns, porches, alleys and even rooftops for three days in plain violation of the state’s shelter-in-place order -- and without interference from police. Foster called to complain, concerned that coronavirus would spread in the neighborhood and beyond as students returned home.
Police wouldn’t act. “I was told that they were concentrating on education, not enforcement,” Foster said.
As U.S. states revive, it’s been left to local governments to enforce new rules on how to contain Covid-19. Ill-equipped, understaffed and with limited powers, few are ready to police face masks and social distancing. That weakness was highlighted this week when Tesla CEO Elon Musk steamrolled Alameda County, California, which couldn’t stop him from reopening his factory more than a week before it was initially allowed.
As of Thursday, all but five U.S. states had either already begun reopening or were scheduled to, many of them with rules meant to keep residents safe. Scientists warn that unregulated commerce will mean a death toll that soars far above the 85,000 fatalities in the U.S. so far.
“We need really detailed guidance from the federal government, which still leaves the issue of whether local governments have the capacity to enforce the rules,” said Ashish Jha, director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute. “In areas that don’t have the capacity to enforce things like crowd limits in bars, you are going to see outbreaks. And the impact of that is going to be substantial and severe.”
More than half of cities expect to cut services, including police, according to the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Counties are even more vulnerable because they oversee health departments, hospitals, nursing homes, emergency medical services and coroners, “which unfortunately are in high demand,” said Teryn Zmuda, chief economist at the National Association of Counties. By July 2021, counties will lose $114 billion in revenue and incur an additional $30 billion in costs because of Covid-19, she said.
Now, underfunded health departments accustomed to policing the isolated restaurant health-code violation are responsible for making sure people are far enough apart in all of them. Police and sheriff’s deputies are being asked to crack down on crowds without proper protective equipment.
Law enforcement “wasn’t ready for this,” said David Mahoney, the sheriff of Dane County, Wisconsin, who is the incoming president of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Opponents of lock-down orders have been quick to play up incidents like the fining of a surfer using a closed California beach and an undercover sting of a woman doing nails in her Texas home. But those are exceptions.
In fact, many agencies are reluctant to get tough. Mahoney said tough enforcement drains resources from fighting crime and can damage community relationships.
“Everything I do is based on relationships, on gaining trust and legitimacy,” said Mahoney. “It is my personal belief that taking a heavy-handed approach would be counterproductive.”
New York City police have been accused of using excessive force and targeting minorities while enforcing social distancing and face-mask rules. “This situation is untenable,” said Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch. Officers have received no practical guidance, he said, “leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves.”
In California, which had one of the strictest stay-home policies, police officers in Los Angeles haven’t arrested anyone for violating the order against large gatherings. Nor have officers in Sacramento, where “education remains our primary goal,” said Police Officer Karl Chan. The same “education-first direction” stands in Portland, Oregon, said Police Bureau spokesperson Nola Watts.
In Tennessee, local officials lack any clear-cut authority: Republican Governor Bill Lee called his reopening order a “pledge” because it’s voluntary. Restaurants are urged, not ordered, to seat diners safely apart and to keep bars closed.
Good public-health enforcement has two elements: health departments and public-safety agencies, said Oscar Alleyne, chief program officer for the National Association of County and City Health Officials in Washington.
Health agencies can order quarantines, license facilities, inspect them for compliance and shut them down for violations, he said. Public-safety agencies enforce orders that violators ignore. The division of labor has broken down in the pandemic, with states ordering far broader mandates and parts of the public resisting restrictions.
Local health departments have fewer personnel to respond. Nationally, they’ve lost 50,000 workers in a decade. Cincinnati’s has cut 40% of its workforce during the current pandemic.
“The idea that local health departments are going to be able to go out and do these inspections on an ongoing basis isn’t real,” Alleyne said.
Health agencies have also found themselves short of respect.
Musk, the Tesla CEO, opened his production factory Monday despite a request from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency. President Donald Trump tweeted out encouragement for Musk,and Governor Gavin Newsom described the problem as a “county issue” without taking a side.
By Wednesday, the county had backed down, giving the already-open factory permission to operate.
Musk is just the most high-profile rebel. In Los Angeles, police have been forwarding reports of businesses operating outside the rules to City Attorney Mike Feuer. His office has filed 60 criminal complaints, more than half against stores selling vaping supplies, pot, cigars and cigarettes. The city cut water and power to one particularly recalcitrant offender.
“Those stores are clearly not essential to the basic functioning of our life right now,” Feuer said.
Some openings are political. A Dallas beauty salon owner refused to close her salon and was sent briefly to jail. It earned her celebrity status among conservative Republicans; a policy reversal from Texas’ Governor Greg Abbott; a televised haircut for Senator Ted Cruz -- and more than $500,000 for her own GoFundMe campaign.
Refusal to enforce the rules has become a badge of honor for some politicians. In North Carolina, the Johnston County sheriff has refused to enforce limits on church attendance. A sheriff in Racine County in southern Wisconsin refused to enforce that state’s stay-home order -- now struck down by the state supreme court -- calling it a violation of individual rights. So did a sheriff in Douglas County, Illinois. And in Greeley, Colorado, the Weld County health department is allowing restaurants to open in violation of Governor Jared Polis’s rules.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo ordered the public to wear masks or risk fines beginning May 8, drawing a quick response from a police union.
“Our officers work every single day to bridge the gap with our community and earn their trust,” wrote Jedidiah Pineau, president of the Warwick Fraternal Order Of Police Lodge 7.
“We will not stand idly by and allow Governor Raimondo’s overreaching order to tear that bridge down,” he wrote. “And we will certainly not be a part of it by enforcing this order against our community.”
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