On the covid-19 beat: Rule enforcers seek cooperation but come ready to fine scofflaws

“No offense to you guys,” an exasperated Brady Preston, manager of the popular restaurant Lynora’s, said to the trio of code enforcers on the sidewalk. “But I’m the one having to tell somebody in my business that they have to put on a mask or leave. They’ll never come back after that.”

Similar tensions are bubbling up, and occasionally boiling over, across the nation as states and localities battle a coronavirus surge by imposing some of the most sweeping restrictions since the stay-at-home orders of the spring. Governments have enacted mask mandates, limited social gatherings, closed businesses, capped store capacities and canceled sports in desperate bids to reduce caseloads without resorting to politically unpopular — and economically bruising — lockdowns.

On the front lines of this patchwork policing effort are Richard Padgett and Steve Newell, whose beat involves patrolling Palm Beach County restaurants to enforce a county mask mandate adopted in June after a raucous public hearing where one anti-mask activist called it “the devil’s law.” They are part of a 25-person “Covid Education and Compliance Team,” some of whose members were borrowed for this unprecedented job from other county agencies. By early December, the team had issued 157 written warnings and 86 violations and ordered the temporary closure of 27 businesses.

Teams like this are the foot soldiers in the wars over coronavirus restrictions — the ones who do not make the rules but implement them. In interviews, members and leaders of such teams described the work as occasionally hostile, sometimes emotional and — they emphasized — most often mundane. The focus, they say, is on education, not citation.

Joann Mirodias, a Palm Beach County social worker who volunteered for mask patrol, figuring her expertise with difficult conversations might come in handy, said she has had uneventful experiences at countless restaurants, bars and even strip clubs.

“The dancers at the club were serving food when we were there,” Mirodias said. “And they were wearing masks.”

The makeup of coronavirus forces varies by the regulation and jurisdiction. Some are health department or building code inspectors. Others are workplace safety or liquor board enforcement officers. Where criminal violations are involved, law enforcement may be engaged, as in the case of a coronavirus-positive couple who were arrested this month and charged with reckless endangerment in Hawaii after flying from California to Kauai, in violation of state law.

But as the pandemic persists, law enforcement involvement has loomed as a greater point of contention. A rising number of local agencies have made clear that they do not intend to enforce some restrictions, particularly those limiting private social gatherings. In New York, the state sheriff’s association flatly rejected the idea of enforcing an order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) capping in-home gatherings at 10.

“The governor gave [sheriffs] something that’s practically unenforceable. They have no authority to go into people’s homes to see how many people are in there without a search warrant,” said Peter R. Kehoe, the association’s executive director. In general, Kehoe added, sheriffs “think people have enough problems with this disease that they don’t want to add to people’s misery.”

In some cases, law enforcement is serving as security for civilian inspectors encountering rising backlash. Last month, Milwaukee began sending police escorts with health inspectors, who had received death threats while enforcing coronavirus rules. Evening inspections in Anne Arundel County now also include police, after inspectors began facing harassment and “verbal hostility,” said county health officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman.

Even with officers on the scene, confrontations can ensue.

When a health inspector, flanked by deputies, showed up last month at a gym in Orchard Park, N.Y., where the owner was holding a protest for business owners angered by state closures, the crowd forced the inspection team to leave, a widely circulated video shows. As they followed the team into the parking lot, people in attendance could be heard chanting, “We will not comply!” and calling the team “new-age Nazis.” The gym was later fined $15,000 for violating gathering limits and not requiring face coverings.

But a large amount of enforcement is carried out by unarmed civilians more accustomed to looking for building code violations or vandalism in parks. Prominent enforcement sweeps have been carried out in Pasadena, Calif., where city employees last month aggressively monitored restaurants for compliance with restrictions and also patrolled public parks, where they broke up volleyball games, birthday parties and a motorcycle show that exceeded gathering limits.

The city has ceased, however, to ask joggers on the popular Rose Bowl Loop to wear masks, said Israel Del Toro, a code compliance manager who coordinates the city’s coronavirus enforcement efforts. Most were gracious, he said. A handful ran the other direction. But a few “became very confrontational with our staff,” he said.

“We always want to be very friendly. We don’t want to come across as authoritarian,” Del Toro said. But, he added: “The thought is this: We’re nine months into it. If someone’s not wearing a mask now, they’re not going to wear a mask tomorrow,” Del Toro said, explaining why the city is no longer stopping mask-bereft runners. They city has instead posted signs about its mask requirement (most of which, a county spokeswoman said, have been torn down and ripped up).

In Oregon, much of the business-related covid-19 enforcement has fallen to the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose 77 enforcement officers typically spend a lot of time inspecting factories and construction sites. Now, they hit restaurants, supermarkets and gyms, responding to complaints about coronavirus violations — more than 16,000 of them by the first week of December, or “eight years of work in normal times,” administrator Michael Wood said. The agency has managed to inspect fewer than 2 percent of the associated worksites, Wood said.

That has not stopped the inspectors from becoming occasional public enemies. Last month, after Gov. Kate Brown (D) ordered a two-week “freeze” that closed gyms, the owner of a Salem-area fitness club kept its four locations open, saying in a Facebook post that closing would kill the business and citing lack of evidence for spread in gyms. An Oregon OSHA inspector issued fines totaling $90,000.

Days later, a few dozen protesters — among them the founder of the far-right group Patriot Prayer — demonstrated outside the home of the inspector. A week later, protesters gathered outside Wood’s house. Police monitored both demonstrations, which Wood described as peaceful, if unsettling. One speaker accused Wood of stealing business owners’ “American Dream” from the perch of his “cushy state job,” the Statesman Journal reported.

I don’t enjoy having an impact on businesses. We pretty much beg businesses … to agree to come into compliance. It’s an eyes-open decision in these cases,” Wood said. “I will tell you that ‘cushy’ does not describe my feeling about my job really any time, but certainly since the first of March.”

In Baltimore County, where a multiagency Social Distancing Task Force has carried out more than 8,100 inspections since the spring, mostly of businesses, relations between the inspectors and the inspected have improved over time, said director Marcus Johnson. About 80 percent are found in compliance, he said, and most others fix problems after warnings.

But Johnson, who goes out on inspections several times a week, said the work hasn’t necessarily gotten easier.

“This covid is deadly. We’re only trying to enforce it because it’s a life hazard, is how we’re looking at it. But when you’re scratching and trying to survive, your view is different, because you just want to be able to provide for your family,” said Johnson, who is the county’s fire director. “I can be an avenue for them to just vent. … But it’s difficult.”

In South Florida, the Palm Beach enforcement teams go out in pairs on Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday during the day.

On the recent Sunday, Padgett, Newell and Patrick Rutter, their boss, met on the sidewalk in front of E.R. Bradley’s Saloon, a waterfront restaurant in West Palm Beach. The pair took a couple of steps inside and waved to the masked bartender. Everything looked okay, they said, continuing to the next business.

They say their goal is to be unobtrusive, but diners and drinkers seem to notice them. Rutter said his teams have handed out thousands of masks since the coronavirus patrols began in June.

For the first few months, police or agents from the Florida Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went along, Rutter said.

“At that time, we were looking at a lot of different things, like capacity,” Rutter said. “There were some significant fines, and we did some shutdowns some nights.”

In September, their job became focused solely on mask compliance. That month, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) lifted all capacity restrictions for bars and restaurants.

Florida remains a hot spot for coronavirus cases — third in the nation, behind California and Texas — but safety ordinances to combat the virus have been left to local officials. DeSantis has refused to order a statewide mask mandate. Many cities and counties put such mandates in place during a deadly summer surge, but in September, DeSantis declared that local officials couldn’t fine people for going without a mask.

But they can fine businesses, so dozens of jurisdictions around the state told their safety teams to instead cite businesses if customers aren’t following mask guidelines — which means wearing a face covering indoors unless they’re eating or drinking, and outdoors if they’re not socially distanced.

In neighboring Broward County, it’s also up to code enforcement officers to check on mask compliance.

“When the state took away our ability to issue fines, it became a mandate without a penalty, sort of like the carrot but not the stick,” Fort Lauderdale City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said. Lagerbloom said the city works with businesses, giving warnings before issuing citations.

The result is that much of the burden of mask enforcement has fallen on people such as Preston, the manager of Lynora’s in West Palm Beach.

“A lot of people are really hostile when it comes to masks,” Preston said. “Everybody is under the impression that you can’t get fined if you’re not wearing a mask. Well, they won’t. But the business will.”

The code enforcement team, which Rutter said has faced little hostility, tries to sympathize.

“We understand both sides,” said Padgett, who issued no warnings or citations on this Sunday. “We tell them: When you have a customer that you have to make leave, blame it on us. Blame it on the county.”

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