Gov. Ralph Northam gave local police and officers of county sheriff’s offices a new set of rules to enforce as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. In addition to checking on businesses that are considered “non-essential,” police are also now monitoring whether general gatherings of 10 or more are happening.
On Tuesday evening, police sent out statements informing the public about the new duties placed on them by the governor’s order.
Front Royal Police Department Chief Kahle Magalis said on Wednesday that checking on businesses to see if they are complying with the governor’s executive order will not be part of officers’ proactive policing efforts. But violations, he said, will be addressed as they come up.
“We’re going to try to work with our community partners and businesses and warn them, educate them and advise them,” he said. “We will not just be running in and charging people.”
Businesses that are not on the front lines of health care or providing everyday services — grocery stores, food processing centers, pet stores — must shut their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Northam declared earlier this week. For some time those non-essential businesses were allowed to remain open if they put measures in place to allow for social distancing.
Now that stricter guidelines have come from the governor, police are warning everyone that failing to comply with the rules will result in a court summons and a charge of a class 1 misdemeanor.
Magalis said that social distancing rules apply to groups other than businesses. The recommendation to keep public gatherings at 10 people or fewer is no longer optional and is punishable as a misdemeanor.
“All gatherings of more than 10 people are banned statewide, beginning at 11:59 PM on Tuesday, March 24, 2020,” the governor announced in a release on Tuesday. “This does not include gatherings that involve the provision of health care or medical services, access to essential services for low-income residents, such as food banks; operations of the media; law enforcement agencies; or operations of government.”
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter said on Wednesday that law enforcement officials are focused on being good neighbors and helping people navigate the uncertain times.
“Our job is to help the public get through this ordeal while maintaining public safety and staff safety,” Carter said. “So a large part of what we are doing is helping people understand the executive order and how they can help their communities.”
Magalis said staff safety during a pandemic is of particular interest. To keep his officers safe, Magalis said the department made sure to put in orders for protective equipment early. While protective gear such as masks and gloves are in high demand, Magalis said the department has ordered as much as possible.
When officers return from calls or are back into work after a day off, the department is also providing regular checks on their health.
“We have been maintaining medical surveillance on our officers pretty much daily,” Magalis said.
Surveillance includes taking officer temperatures as well as monitoring where they have been and who they were in contact with.
Policing during a crisis looks different on patrol, too.
Carter said his officers are not performing as many officer-initiated minor calls, which helps to protect his staff and prevent unnecessary personal contact.
In Front Royal, Magalis said there has been an increase in disturbance calls, possibly as a result of people spending more time in their homes. When people are forced to spend more time at home, Magalis said, tensions can run high.
Northam said this week that decreased movement and other restrictions could last more than a month. During that time, police and sheriff’s office staff are in the community to help, Carter said.
“We are trying to be good neighbors and public servants, helping businesses if they need clarity on the governor’s order,” he said. “We want to be a resource to people as we all deal with the anxiety and concern of this issue.”