Policing in a pandemic: Citations, arrests raise concern over COVID-19 public health orders in Steamboat
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Each morning, as Sgt. Rich Brown prepares for his shift at the Steamboat Springs Police Department, he follows a series of strict health protocols, the same ones that any other essential businesses must abide by amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brown checks his temperature to ensure he is not running a fever. He logs the reading on a spreadsheet along with the temperatures of his fellow officers. The daily briefings they conduct before going on patrol have been moved to the larger community room near the lobby, which allows enough space for proper social distancing. Everyone wears a mask during these briefings as well as any time officers could come into contact with another person.
As the death toll of the virus continues to grow — as of Friday, more than 36,000 had died in the U.S. alone — these health procedures have become legally binding. Routt County has passed a series of public health orders as a way to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus, which range from restrictions on lodging to, most recently, requiring people to wear masks in businesses or on public transit.
All of these orders give the Police Department the authority to enforce them and contain punitive measures for certain violators. The maximum penalty for a public health order violation includes a $5,000 fine and up to 18 months in jail.
Face-off over face masks
The most recent order regarding face masks, perhaps more than any other, has sparked criticism from some members of the community. Opponents believe the measures have gone too far, and that the fear of being penalized could do more harm than good. Some dissenters question the constitutionality of such a requirement and raise Orwellian fears of government control.
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Public health experts say the orders are necessary to protect the community and the ultimate goal is to gain voluntary compliance, not issue punishments.
The controversy has revealed deep-seated American values of personal freedoms that have been curtailed in a utilitarian attempt to prioritize the interests of the country, not the individual. Such practices raise concerns over the power governments yield, particularly in the U.S., which drafted the Bill of Rights as a way to protect itself against the tyranny from which the Founding Fathers sought liberation.
Even President Donald Trump, in a series of tweets, signaled his support for protests staged in state capitals across the country against stay-at-home orders.
A letter signed by 97 Routt County residents, published in the Steamboat Pilot & Today this week, urged the Routt County Board of Commissioners to amend the latest health order regarding face masks, specifically the punitive measures they view as excessive.
“In a county of 24,000 people with only 43 COVID-19 cases, with an abundance of open space and fresh air, your decision seems extraordinarily heavy-handed and intended to sow fear and distrust, rather than to stop the spread of disease,” the letter said.
It cites a recent article in the Pilot & Today, which mentioned a surge in suicide calls amid panic over the pandemic and the resulting economic collapse.
Jennifer Schubert-Akin, one of the signees of the letter and chairman and CEO of The Steamboat Institute, a conservative think tank, emphasized the goal of the letter was not to oppose the wearing of face masks. She voluntarily wears one and thinks doing so is a good idea for now. What she disagrees with is the possibility of paying a $5,000 fine or spending more than a year in jail.
“There is no need to intimidate people — who are already very stressed out with loss of jobs and income — with threats of excessive fines and jail time,” she said in an email. “The commissioners could restore a great deal of goodwill and community spirit by removing the fine and jail time from their order.”
In response to the public criticism, Routt County public health officials and Police Chief Cory Christensen participated in a virtual town hall Thursday, which focused on the most recent health order.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan started the town hall by affirming the government’s power to enforce such regulations. He quoted section B of the latest order, which states the Routt County Public Health Department “has the statutory authority to investigate and control the causes of epidemic or communicable diseases and conditions affecting public health, as well as to establish, maintain, and enforce isolation and quarantine, and to exercise physical control over persons within its jurisdiction as necessary for the protection of public health.”
The punitive measures, laid out in the Colorado revised statues, predate the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The constitutionality of these orders are unquestioned,” Corrigan said.
He compared the public health orders to speed limits. They exist not only to protect a driver from endangering himself but to protect others on the road from reckless drivers. He has grown frustrated with the number of complaints he has fielded from people, even close friends, who do not understand the benevolent aspect of the health orders.
“People have a social responsibility to protect their fellow citizens,” Corrigan said.
As Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County’s public health medical officer, explained, the face masks are not to prevent someone from getting COVID-19 — they are to prevent people who may have the virus from spreading it. While more research needs to be done, early studies show about half of the people with the virus do not show symptoms, he said. By going to stores and riding buses, they run the risk of infecting others, possibly leading to innumerable new cases and deaths.
“For me, wearing a mask is less of a burden than other things we have had to institute,” Harrington said, alluding to the shuttering of businesses and stay-at-home orders.
When it comes to enforcement, Christensen emphasized that the top priority is to gain voluntary compliance. The Police Department has fielded more than 120 calls regarding public health violations since the first orders went into effect March 24, the vast majority of which resulted in officers educating people on the rules and sending them about their day. The number of calls represents a small portion, about 10%, of the Police Department’s total call volume, Christensen said, and the number has dwindled in recent days.
The notable exception came Monday, when officers arrested three men from the Front Range who were visiting a friend at his home in Steamboat. The person in charge of the home, a woman with three children and a vulnerable family member living there, called police out of concern for their health and safety.
The three men were in clear violation of the state’s stay-at-home order, Christensen said, which restricts people from traveling except for necessary reasons. The friends were here to fish and sightsee, he explained.
Officers tried to get the men to comply and leave the home, but they refused. Eventually, they were booked into jail on suspicion of violating a health order and obstructing a peace officer, all misdemeanors, according to arrest records. They were released from jail the next day.
The incident has elicited a new wave of varied reactions, with some who see the arrests as police taking the crisis seriously and others who see it as an overreach of power.
Amid the fear and anger over the pandemic, a general catch-22 has emerged in which law enforcement agencies face criticism for either doing too much or not doing enough.
Earlier in the month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and a Denver-based civil rights firm sued the Weld County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of seven inmates for not taking enough precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the jail. Several deputies and inmates had tested positive for the virus, according to a report from Colorado Public Radio, and the lawsuit accused the Sheriff’s Office of putting more inmates at risk by not releasing them from jail so they could properly self-isolate.
On March 20, Chief Judge Michael O’Hara of the 14th Judicial District issued new procedures for dealing with current and future offenders. Officers already had reduced enforcement for certain offenses, such as speeding.
The procedures state that people arrested for lower level crimes, such as driving under the influence or shoplifting, and those who have preexisting medical conditions or are exhibiting symptoms of the virus, should receive personal recognizance bonds rather than be booked into the jail. Any current inmate who meets these conditions should be released from jail and given an order to return on bond after June 15.
The Routt County Jail has since released inmates awaiting trial for lower-level crimes and taken steps to improve sanitation within the jail. As of Friday, the number of inmates had been reduced from 33 to 10, according to jail officials.
But these measures come with their own set of concerns. The District Attorney’s Office for the 14th Judicial District is opposing the release of an inmate in Moffat County who is awaiting trial for allegedly sexually assault of a child, according to District Attorney Matt Karzen. The inmate also has a prior conviction for a predatory sex crime.
Finding clarity in chaos
These complex issues reveal the struggle governments face in dealing with a crisis they still do not completely understand — one that has upended almost every aspect of life. It can be disconcerting to see leaders, including the country’s president, fumble over how to respond, but such is the reality of facing unprecedented challenges.
“These are really strange and difficult times, and there is no playbook,” Christensen said during Thursday’s town hall.
Local, state and national officials have tried their best to answer the public’s questions through town halls, news conferences and call lines. Karzen, the local DA, came out with a letter to the editor in which he tried to assuage people’s fears over the public health orders’ punitive measures.
“Like most criminal statutes, the maximum penalties provided are rarely imposed or even sought,” he said in the letter.
But for certain questions, such as when the world may return to some semblance of normalcy, there are simply no clear answers yet. That uncertainty may explain why people have reacted so strongly to the health orders, either in support or dissent.
“We are stressed. People are going to react in ways they may not normally,” Christensen said. “This is a tough time for everyone.”
But as Harrington added, what the orders seek to do most is protect people — friends, neighbors and family members — from a disease that has claimed more than 150,000 lives globally. Last week, Routt County reported its first fatality related to COVID-19, an elderly woman living at Casey’s Pond.
“I’m already disappointed we had a death in this community. I don’t want to see any more,” Harrington said.
The more that people comply with health guidelines and orders, the quicker the world can resolve the pandemic, he added.
“This is not about issuing orders to arbitrarily change our lives,” Harrington said. “They are meant to keep people healthy and get back to an economic situation that is as good as it can be as quickly as possible.”