As the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate climbs higher and the holiday season approaches, public health officials are pleading with Marylanders to skip large gatherings ― and are throwing extra muscle behind the effort.
“The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is often a night where kids come home from college. They go out to bars to drink and socialize before then celebrating the holiday — sometimes with older family members,” Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said at a news conference Monday. “I cannot stress enough how reckless that behavior would be this year.”
Because of this Thanksgiving’s unusual circumstances, Hogan is deploying state and local police departments to ensure that reckless behavior remains in check.
In addition to the traditional ramped-up policing efforts that come with the holiday season, Hogan has launched a “wide-scale, all-hands-on-deck compliance, education and enforcement operation,” deploying extra state police officers to each of the 24 jurisdictions to respond to local complaints and quash any super-spreader events.
These extra units will be deployed to high-traffic and popular areas in each county beginning Wednesday evening.
So is this the “turkey police?”
As of Tuesday morning, Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley did not know the exact number of excess troopers to be deployed but said that some of them will be working overtime and others will be officers who are already scheduled to be at DUI checkpoints and conducting other extra enforcement duties traditionally performed around the holidays.
Units have already been scheduled to deploy in high-traffic areas in Baltimore City and Harford, Montgomery, Baltimore and Wicomico counties.
“However, in each county, troopers will be prepared to respond to calls related to COVID prevention,” Shipley said.
But it won’t be state police alone.
Calvert County Assistant Sheriff Dave McDowell said that local police agencies in his county will largely serve in supporting roles to the Maryland State Police.
“We’re not going to drive around looking for [violations], but if a deputy is somewhere and they see a large gathering, of course they’re going to inquire,” McDowell said. “We have a responsibility ― like everyone else in this community ― to do what we can to stop the spread of this virus.”
McDowell said the sheriff’s office receives occasional calls about noncompliance with the governor’s public health orders, but for the most part residents and businesses are abiding by the guidance.
Shipley said that state troopers’ first priority is voluntary compliance, stating that the objective is to contact business owners to work towards that goal.
“If further action is necessary, it will be taken in coordination with local health officials, local law enforcement and the state’s attorney in that jurisdiction,” he said.
Policing of private homes?
At his news conference this week, Hogan said that 57% of registered COVID-19 noncompliance complaints stem from restaurants, bars and retail businesses.
“Especially now, it is critically important that we stay vigilant in this fight,” he stressed. “We can’t let a few bad actors spoil it for the others who have been doing such a great job.”
As such, Shipley said that the state’s focus is not on policing homes “where a large turkey has been purchased.
“Rather, it will be on establishments that have large numbers of people gathered, which some might describe as having ‘super-spreader’ potential,” he said.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler (R) is of the same mindset.
“We’re not going to be charging people if they have 12 people over for Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “We’re not going to be doing any policing of people’s private homes.”
In fact, Gahler said he was just talking to the state’s attorney to see if there was anything in Hogan’s crowd size order that would lead to a criminal charge if there were violations ― they decided that there probably weren’t.
But Gahler said he was preparing his deputies for possible calls about crowd sizes, even neighbors calling about neighbors, since that’s what Hogan requested.
“We go to everything,” he said of calls the department responds to. “If there’s a dog with a broken toe nail, we respond. What we do when getting these calls is another matter.”
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) said that his department also won’t be monitoring large gatherings in people’s homes, and encourages “people not to be concerned about what other households chose to do.”
“This whole issue of people calling in violations on each other creates a backlash of anger and potentially volatile situations between neighbors and families,” said Jenkins. “These types of actions are fueling the anger and resentment. The public has been repeatedly told what the recommendations and best practices are, and at this point to continue drilling these orders into the population may be doing more harm than good.”
Gahler said that since the pandemic, his department has arrested two people for violating travel restrictions in March, along with the person who refused to put on a mask during early voting. That’s been it so far.
But not all noncompliance calls are as nonviolent.
Hogan said at the Monday press conference that Anne Arundel County Police made arrests when several individuals who refused to wear masks assaulted two Coldstone Creamery employees in Edgewater.
“They will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Hogan stated.
Despite some violence, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said that county residents largely comply ― sometimes begrudgingly ― with Hogan’s orders.
“We are not going to go into peoples’ houses and arrest them for gathering,” he told Maryland Matters in an interview Tuesday. “If there are large social gatherings and we get a complaint, our police department will go in and ask them to disperse. And so far, when that kind of thing has happened, people have been compliant, even if they’ve been a little bit unhappy about it.”
Education is key
“There are penalties [for breaking the compliance orders], but at this time, we’ve been advised to not put any charges against the violators,” Capt. John Bollinger, the administrative commander of Talbot County Sheriff’s Office, said, adding that county residents have been complying so far.
Talbot County officers who respond to complaints about possible violations to COVID-19 restrictions are to follow up with the local health department. If law enforcement and rowdy business owners can’t reach voluntary compliance in Worcester County, the complaint is referred to Kristen Heiser (R), the state’s attorney.
But Worcester County Sheriff Matthew Crisafulli (R) said that voluntary compliance through education is his preferred tactic.
“We strive to help our businesses and residents understand the impact of this pandemic,” he told Maryland Matters in an email. “The guided education has worked well in our county.”
In the city of Baltimore, officers will investigate complaints and attempt to educate violators about the state’s restrictions, said spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge.
During an investigation, police will activate their body cameras, Eldridge said. If groups don’t voluntarily comply or there’s a persistent complaint about a location, the department will reach out to the city’s Social Club Task Force, which includes the police and other agencies: Baltimore City Fire Department, Baltimore City Health Department, Liquor Board and Department of Housing and Community Development.
According to Charles County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Diane Richardson, COVID-19 education has also been a successful plan of attack.
“Overall, almost everyone we have had contact with regarding these types of calls have been very positive and responsive with no action needed,” she said in a statement. “As in the past, each case will be handled according to what we find once we are on the scene. Our primary focus is the safety of the community.”
Jessica Milligan, the public information officer for the Queen Anne’s County Office of the Sheriff, said the department has seen very few complaints and is proud of its residents for their compliance.
Lt. Michael Holmes of the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office said the county also sees a high level of voluntary compliance. The agency has received “virtually no” calls about pandemic-related violations lately, Holmes said.
Over the holiday weekend, “if a deputy sees something on patrol and feels like they need to take action, they will,” Holmes said. “…If we are contacted, we will go out and investigate and take action if necessary.”
Reporters Bruce DePuyt, Danielle E. Gaines, Josh Kurtz, Bennett Leckrone and Elizabeth Shwe contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include responses from additional counties.