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When it comes to social distancing orders, local cities prefer education over arrests

Avondale Estates Business Crime and public safety Decatur Food Kirkwood Metro ATL Tucker

When it comes to social distancing orders, local cities prefer education over arrests

Photo provided by the Decatur Police Department
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DeKalb County, GA – Without a state order requiring people to stay at home, the task of enforcing social distancing has fallen to local cities.

Most cities Decaturish spoke to said they would opt to educate the public about their executive orders rather than fining them or throwing them in jail.

The city of Tucker declined to implement a stay-at-home order as other cities have done, taking what the mayor referred to as a “smarter” approach to enforcing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That approach included threatening a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for anyone caught violating its most recent emergency declaration. The order includes suspending in-person dining at restaurants, closing certain businesses and requiring people with serious underlying health conditions to stay home unless they are obtaining food or medical treatment.

The ordinance would be enforced by DeKalb County Police, which provides the city’s police services. But DeKalb County as adopted its own rules, including a stay-at-home order.

When asked how the county plans to enforce it, a county spokesperson implied the county directed a reporter to language in the executive order. The county’s order says, “In recognition that the county does not have the personnel or resources to monitor and police distancing or gathering limitations or stay at home requirements, the DeKalb County Police Department and other departments of county government as necessary are authorized to support compliance with this Order through information delivery and education of individuals about the terms of this order and the imminent threat posed by COVID-19.”

Even if police officers were asked to make arrests, jails are not the safest places to be right now. On March 31, the county’s sheriff announced she had been exposed to the virus. Two employees and two inmates at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold said so far compliance with the city’s stay at home order hasn’t been a problem. But the Police Department can enforce it if need be. There aren’t any penalties listed in the emergency order, but that could change.

“By and large, compliance with the mayor’s Emergency Order No. 2, the ‘Stay at Home’ Order, has been very positive, with Decatur residents and businesses taking seriously the public health emergency that is present,” Arnold said. “I expect that will continue. Where there has been non-compliance, it appears to have been mostly inadvertent. Therefore, the focus for city staff, including public safety personnel, has been education and encouragement. There are no specific penalties set forth in the emergency order; however, the situation is being monitored and if non-compliance becomes an issue, the city will take steps to ensure compliance. In the meantime, in the event there is deliberate non-compliance and non-coercive measures are unsuccessful, the Police Department will take necessary legal measures to enforce compliance with the emergency order and protect the public health. Again, I do not expect such a situation to develop.”

Avondale Estates City Manager Patrick Bryant said the city is taking a similar approach with its stay-at-home order but like Tucker is holding out fines and jail time as a possible consequence.

“Our approach to enforcement is compliance rather than punishment,” Bryant said. “If our patrol officers observe someone or a group to be in violation of any of our restrictions, we have instructed them to use good judgment and encourage those in violation to disperse or cease. However, if someone is egregiously violating any of the restrictions and refuses to comply after being asked to do so, our officers can cite them for a violation, as exists with any violation of our codes, and require an appearance in municipal court with a punishment of up to $1000 or up to 6 months in jail, as determined by the municipal court judge. Thus far we have not had to go that route. Our residents have been very good at maintaining social distance and compliance with the city’s shelter in place order.”

The city of Atlanta also is taking an education-first approach. Two of the police department’s officers have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The Atlanta Police Department is aware that there are gatherings taking place throughout the city that may be contrary to the instruction in the Mayor’s Stay at Home Order which prohibits gatherings of any size by persons who are not members of the same household,” the Police Department’s website says. “When officers are made aware of these gatherings, they have attempted to, and will continue to, address the participants with a goal toward educating them. In some instances, we find that there are people who were not aware of the executive order and once they are made aware, they voluntarily disperse. We hope that as we move forward we will continue to avoid the necessity of this becoming an enforcement issue.”

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