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As Epidemic Worsens, Cities And States Ask Police To Enforce Staying At Home


Three-quarters of Americans have now been asked to stay at home to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Police have emphasized that they've been relying on people to voluntarily obey these orders, to go out only for essentials like food, medicine or exercise. But now some police departments are having to ramp up social distancing enforcement.

Joining us now to talk about all that is NPR's Eric Westervelt.

Hey, Eric.


CHANG: So just to make clear, is voluntary compliance with these stay-at-home orders generally working out?

WESTERVELT: I mean, generally, I think it is. Police departments I've talked to - and I've called a lot - say, you know, look; most folks - they're not going out recklessly or unnecessarily or holding big gatherings or parties. You know, police across the country say, you know, look; we're not out to fine people or make arrests. You know, we want to educate people. If they're not taking the orders seriously, we want to talk to them.

You know, that said, some police are losing, you know, patience. And police over the weekend had to make many arrests and issue some fines for violations of social distancing. One of several examples is in Florida. There's a megachurch in Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County that repeatedly defied police orders over the weekend to limit crowds to fewer than 10 people. They did it twice yesterday, disobeying those orders.

And the county sheriff there today, Chad Chronister, you know, said the pastor - it's a church called The River at Tampa Bay - had shown, quote, "reckless disregard for human life" and put hundreds of people in the community and in his congregation at risk. Here's Sheriff Chronister earlier today when asked about his reaction when he saw some online video of a large crowd gathering at the church.


CHAD CHRONISTER: I was appalled and also frightened at the fact that those individuals, thinking and believing that they're doing the right thing - how many people are they going to infect if they have this COVID-19 and now that they're going to spread it back to the community as they return back to where they live?

WESTERVELT: And the sheriff later today in a tweet said that the pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, had been arrested. He'll be charged with unlawful assembly and violating public health rules. Both are misdemeanors.

CHANG: OK. So some people clearly are not following these orders. Where else are police having to intervene and take some action right now?

WESTERVELT: Well, in Los Angeles County today, the sheriff announced they're redeploying deputies from courthouses to help enforce social distancing orders. In New Orleans, which is a major hot spot for the virus, police issued a summons to a bandleader who was playing with his band for a funeral where more than a hundred people had gathered. Obviously, that's a big tradition in New Orleans - the jazz funeral. But police there say, look; you know, we're going to enforce the ban on crowds.

There are other examples. In Maryland, a man was arrested over the weekend for hosting a big outdoor, you know, bonfire party with alcohol and more than 60 people. It was his second violation. The county sheriff moved in. A surfer in LA at Manhattan Beach was fined a thousand dollars for ignoring police orders not to surf...


WESTERVELT: ...There. The beach was closed. And I called the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and police there have set up checkpoints and imposed a curfew. But on the larger islands, police aren't doing that. They're not doing checkpoints. They're relying on patrols. And I have to emphasize, you know, Kauai is really an outlier. Most police departments aren't using checkpoints - at least not yet.

CHANG: And today, some states, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, have gone from just asking people to stay at home to ordering them to do so. Why the change there?

WESTERVELT: Well, the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of D.C. said, you know, our requests to stay put were working but not well enough. So now we're ordering that, you know, stay at home, as we know, for - except for food, medicine and limited exercise. So now 29 states have those similar orders.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said, you know, over the weekend, too many people were crowding into beaches. They weren't obeying the suggestions to distance. So now his order lasts until June 10, and his message to Virginia residents was pretty straightforward - stay home.

CHANG: Stay at home, people. All right. That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thank you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.