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Health directors, police stress education in enforcing virus restrictions

By Gayla Cawley and David Mclellan | May 22, 2020

Municipal health and police departments have been the agencies responsible for enforcing COVID-19 advisories, orders and restrictions throughout the pandemic.

City health directors in Lynn and Peabody say their departments have been working to ensure that businesses follow city- and state-required protocols, such as ensuring customers and staff wear face masks and stores adhere to social distancing.

But health officials say those protocols become more difficult to enforce on an individual basis outside the business community.

“There are places where I’ve been where I have observed people not wearing face coverings where they have not been properly social distanced,” said Lynn Public Health Director Michele Desmarais. “I still believe that it’s about education.

“It’s about making sure everyone understands how dangerous and how contagious this virus is and there are precautions we should all be taking to stop this virus spread. Proper face coverings and social distancing have been shown to decrease the amount and the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

Peabody Health Director Sharon Cameron added: “it’s really difficult because we’re not a police force. We don’t have inspectors that are waiting to receive a complaint and rush out to catch a person in the act.

“What you should do is control what you can control and keep your distance from (others who are not wearing masks). We never want anyone approaching or confronting anyone they see without a face mask.”

Area police departments have been fielding those types of individual complaints, which have included social distancing, face mask and mass gathering violations, but officers have largely chosen to take more of that educational, rather than enforcement approach.

“It’s more of an educational standpoint from the police side of it,” said Nahant Police Chief Robert Dwyer. “If we are called on a complaint, like a large number of kids at the park, we will go down there and try to educate them.”

Although many Lynn businesses have been trying hard to adhere to the restrictions placed on their operations, the city’s “mass gathering task force,” which operates out of the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), has had to issue 59 violations as of Tuesday, according to Desmarais.

Those violations have mostly been for non-compliance with face coverings in stores, for both customers and staff, for businesses not adhering to social distancing and for too many people being inside a store at a given time. There’s also been some instances of non-essential businesses operating, Desmarais said.

“The inspector goes out and if it’s a first time visit, they are just given a warning (and are) just reminded as to what the directives are at the time,” said Desmarais. “It’s difficult because you don’t want to impose any more hardship on anybody right now, but you also need to keep in mind the health and safety of the city.”

After the initial warning, the city issues up to three escalating fines to a business that is found to be in non-compliance with certain restrictions. If a business is found to be in violation after receiving fines of $100, $200 and $300, the city will issue a cease and desist order, Desmarais said.

So far, two businesses have been shut down through cease and desist orders after receiving warnings and several fines, but Desmarais declined to name them.

Although violations have been issued to a mix of businesses throughout the city, the majority of violations have been for box, or chain stores, she said.

“Businesses are complying,” said Desmarais. “They’re trying very hard and I think it’s important to realize that so that they can continue in business during this difficult, challenging time.”

In Peabody, as of Tuesday, 15 businesses have been shut down and one fine has been issued. Four of those businesses were shut down by the state Department of Labor Standards, Cameron said.

The majority of businesses that have been shut down have been deemed “non-essential,” such as gyms, car washes, pet groomers and other retailers. After receiving a warning, the city issued a $300 fine to a gym that continued to flout restrictions, Cameron said.

A number of those cease and desist orders have been issued to car washes, which stemmed from an initial complaint. Although it had been for one particular car wash that was operating, Cameron said the city did compliance checks on all of the others to try to be fair and consistent.

“We’re not doing routine spot monitoring for non-essential businesses, (as we are) focused on (COVID) case counts, “said Cameron. “We’ve been responding to complaints.

“For the most part, (those businesses) thought that they had modified their operations to deliver the service in a way that increased social distancing. People thought they were complying with the spirit of the order by the modifications they made to their service delivery. The list of essential services from the state is pretty cut and dry.”

However, overall, Cameron said most people seem to be adhering to the restrictions.

“I think people for the most part are trying to be good, considerate citizens,” she said.

Since COVID-19 advisories and orders were put in place, area police departments have been receiving calls from residents concerned when they see people gathering at parks, standing too closely together, or not wearing masks.

Some police departments have chosen to take an “educational” approach, rather than an “enforcement” approach when getting these calls.

Dwyer said police have stayed educated on the latest guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention and state government, and officers responding to a complaint will educate people on the importance of wearing a mask and staying at least 6 feet apart.

Sometimes, however, complaint calls will be unfounded, Dwyer said, such as families gathering together, which has been allowed during the pandemic.

“People have been pretty good, and they are trying to follow the rules,” Dwyer said.

Lynnfield Police Chief David Breen also said his officers have taken on the role of educators during the pandemic. He is also regularly reading about COVID-19, and versing himself in Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-phase reopening strategy, announced Monday.

“We are not going to be in the business of strict enforcement … and that’s especially because things just changed,” Breen said.

Breen said he expects complaint calls to continue, even as restrictions on gathering at places like churches and parks are lifted. Sometimes, responding to a COVID-19 social-distancing complaint can be a challenge for officers.

“It’s a logistical nightmare for a police officer to go there and determine who is there, who is related, because families are allowed to be together,” Breen said.

Breen said society as a whole has seen unprecedented changes during the pandemic, and that naturally includes policing.

“I’ve been around long enough that I was around during the HIV era. As scary as that time was for people, it did not have the impact this has had,” Breen said. “The closest thing we can compare it to, even though it wasn’t a disease, was 9/11, with the society changes, how we adjust our business, our rules, our regulations.”

In Lynn, where there’s an overnight curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., enforcement falls on the city’s police department.

Although more people have ventured out as the weather has been improving, Lynn Police Lt. Michael Kmiec said residents have generally been adhering to the curfew.

No fines have been issued for breaking curfew and no arrests have been made. Not following the city’s curfew, which has been extended to June 1, is punishable by a fine up to $1,000.

For the most part, officers have been simply advising people that there’s a curfew in place and moving people along if they are congregating outside their homes, Kmiec said.

“From what we’ve seen, they haven’t been met with a lot of resistance,” said Kmiec. “Prior to the weather improving, I think the residents were doing a good job as far as staying in and doing the right thing as far as the curfew goes.

“When we’ve had some better days, we’ve certainly seen people out. Whether the weather is going to improve is something we’re obviously watching.”