Law enforcement: No easy way to legally enforce quarantines, social distancing
Law enforcement officers nationwide look for voluntary compliance with shelter-in-place orders but can't do much to enforce it beyond writing citations
CONCORD, N.H. — As more states announce “shelter-in-place” and “stay-at-home” orders, officials leading the COVID-19 response effort in New Hampshire say such drastic measures aren’t yet needed here.
Even still, residents are being encouraged to work from home when possible and to practice social distancing with the goal of flattening the curve of coronavirus cases and thereby the demand on emergency personnel and hospitals.
Under state law, health officials can require by court order someone who tests positive for COVID-19 – or had contact with a patient – to quarantine or isolate to restrict the spread of the virus. If any person then leaves a place of quarantine, including a private residence, the law allows any law enforcement officer to take them into custody and return them to that designated location. An appeal of a quarantine order can be made to a superior court judge and scheduled for a hearing within 48 hours.
So far, New Hampshire has issued just a couple of formal orders requiring individuals to quarantine or isolate because of COVID-19 diagnoses, said Jake Leon, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“The other people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have also cooperated and are self-isolating,” he said.
Leon declined to discuss potential scenarios that could cause someone in New Hampshire to face criminal prosecution for violating an order to quarantine, saying the question was too hypothetical.
“We are unable to answer questions that are speculative,” he said.
In recent days, Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered all public schools closed, restricted restaurants to take-out and delivery orders and prohibited large social gatherings. He has not gone as far as several other states, including California, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, which have closed all “non-life-sustaining” or “non-essential” businesses.
For example, communities in the Bay Area of San Francisco are under a shelter-in-place order until at least April 7, meaning they are advised to stay home except if they need to go to the grocery store, pharmacy or other critical service provider. A similar measure was just enacted by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday.
Those orders – and others in states across the country – don’t prevent people from leaving their homes and they’re not easy to enforce. In a traditional “lockdown” scenario, people would be temporarily prohibited from leaving a building or area freely or without explicit permission.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told the San Francisco Chronicle that officials are looking for voluntary compliance with the shelter-in-place order. While the law allows for officers to write citations for failing to comply with the order, Scott said doing so would be a last resort.
Several police chiefs in Merrimack County say they’d take a similar approach. They hope to some degree that social pressure will continue to enforce social distancing moving forward.
Chiefs here are bracing for anything and everything in this new age of uncertainty but note that, so far, they’ve not had to enforce a quarantine or break up a large public gathering. Overall, they said, people seem to be heeding the recommendations from state officials to stay home when possible and practice social distancing when in public.
“Will there be those people who just don’t wish to comply? Yes,” Concord Police Chief Bradley Osgood said. “But, we have a good community and good communication with our community so we’re wishing for the best down the road.”
The state’s justice and health departments declined to say specifically whether local police officers were asking for guidance on how to approach or deal with residents who may ignore public health warnings. Rather, Leon said the state is continuing to work with officers on “a variety of issues related to the COVID-19 outbreak and will continue to do so to resolve any and all issues that have been identified.”
Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein said the situation is still rapidly evolving and relatively new. If recommendations to stay home and limit social activities continue in the weeks ahead, he said he expects people may start to get more fidgety, a feeling that could manifest in a variety of ways.
Goldstein said he is concerned about an increase in reports to law enforcement to include assaults and thefts.
“If there is one can of tuna fish left and three people want it, are they going to flip a coin for it? Maybe, but that’s unlikely,” Goldstein said. “You hope that people will act with the same level of courtesy, but we know that’s just not the reality.”