In some states where governors issued stay-home orders, officials are targeting those who venture out- all in the name of slowing the coronavirus.
Most every day for the past few weeks, New Jersey officials have been disclosing the names of dozens of people whose alleged transgressions would have meant little, if not for a virus cutting a deadly path across the state.
On Easter Sunday, a 21-year-old man was charged with disorderly conduct at a closed local beach for reading a book on a lifeguard stand. Six men in search of a place to work out were cited last week for opening their local tennis and fitness club. Six people were cited for hosting a large backyard party of adults and children, where police found kids “playing in a bouncy castle” while a chef and two waiters readied a catered meal.
These are the new crimes of a pandemic.
“This is certainly about sending a message of deterrence, because compliance is the only way we can slow the spread and save lives,” state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told USA TODAY. “We want to name and shame people, and it’s working.”
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Just how effective the strategy proves to be may not be fully known until well after the coronavirus abates. Yet in the month since governors issued a flurry of stay-at-home orders, several states and local governments are stepping up enforcement campaigns that threaten hefty fines and jail time – all in the name of slowing the coronavirus.
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In Maryland, police have charged at least three dozen people with violations of state orders aimed at controlling the virus while authorities have conducted more than 20,000 compliance checks across the state. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer this week announced charges against 10 businesses, including five tobacco shops, that have allegedly defied state orders prohibiting the operation of nonessential businesses.
“The sooner we achieve maximum compliance – from businesses and residents alike – the sooner all Angelenos can get back to work and resume our normal routines,” Feuer said.
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The actions appear to run counter to a collective stance by police and other law enforcement officials, who in the early days of the health emergency sought local compliance with simple warnings to those who strayed from bans on large gatherings, nonessential business operations and in-person religious services.
In Greenville, Mississippi, local church officials sued police, claiming that officers were dispatched to an April 8 drive-in service where members of the congregation had gathered in their cars, windows rolled up, to listen to a pre-Easter sermon.
Police, according to court documents, responded by "knocking on car windows, demanding drivers' licenses and writing citations with $500 fines."
The service took place a day after the city issued a prohibition against drive-in services, an order that appeared to conflict with a state action designating churches and religious activities as essential operations as long as they complied with social distancing guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mississippi Department of Health.
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The citations have since been rescinded, but the incident prompted the intervention this week of the Justice Department, which has sided with the church in its religious liberty claim against the city.
Elizabeth Goitein, director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that while states have the authority to issue emergency orders and enforce them, "it doesn't mean that it's always a good idea."
"Taking a hands-on approach can spark a backlash," Goitein said. "People are already protesting, and you are likely to see more of that if officials move too aggressively."
This week, protests have erupted in Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah and Virginia, where demonstrators have expressed frustration with continuing restrictions adopted to contain the virus' spread.
"What seems to work best is a cooperative approach, where you encourage a sense of people doing their civic duty," Goitein said. "Enforcement of these orders represents the kind of power that we wouldn't want the government to exercise at any other time; it behooves the government to take a light touch."No apology for enforcement effort
In New Jersey, Attorney General Grewal makes no apology for the enforcement effort, describing it in terms of a life and death struggle in a state ravaged by the virus. More than 75,000 residents have been infected and 3,518 have died as of Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy said.
"We are going to use every lever and tool available to us," Grewal said, referring to local policing of the stay-at-home restrictions and other state orders aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. "In the midst of this pandemic, we need to make sure (people) stay home."
As of this week, 1,700 people have been charged in COVID-19 related incidents in New Jersey. Of that number, officials said, 156 cases rose to felony offenses; 1,544 were direct violations of emergency orders that carried a maximum punishment of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Most disturbing, Grewal said, are the 18 cases in which people have been charged with terroristic threats. In those cases, suspects claimed to be infected with the virus and either coughed or spit in the direction of officers, threatening to expose them to the disease. If convicted, each faces maximum punishments of 10 years in prison and $150,000 in fines.
"We have had cops who have contracted the virus who were exposed like this," Grewal said, adding that it is not known whether the encounters could be traced to the actual transmission of the virus.
In one of the cases, a 31-year-old Camden man who had been arrested last week in connection with a domestic dispute allegedly spit on officers as they attempted to speak with him through the open window of a police car.
"He allegedly stated that he had the coronavirus and that the officers were going to get it," police said, adding that he spit on a third officer while the suspect was waiting to be tested at a local hospital. The result of the suspect's test was not immediately known.
"This is particularly disturbing," Grewal said. "These are certainly unique times."
While the threats of virus transmission to police represented the most serious incidents on the New Jersey police blotter, the plight of a 21-year-old Manchester man appeared among the most benign – and cooperative.
Charged with "defiant trespass and violating the emergency orders," Seaside Park police said the man had been reading a book Easter Sunday atop a local lifeguard stand.
"He admitted," according to the report, "that he knew the beach was closed."
SEARCHABLE MAP: Coronavirus death rates and cases for every US county: https://interactives.courier-journal.com/projects/cv19/map/
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