Few cited statewide for shelter-in-place violations

Barber and owner of Chris Edwards wears a mask (left) as he talks with GSP Troopers who were responding to a complaint call that there was a crowd gathering at the shop at Peachtree Battle Barber Shop at 2333 Peachtree Road in Atlanta on Friday, April 24, 2020. The Troopers found the business in compliance.
Barber and owner of Chris Edwards wears a mask (left) as he talks with GSP Troopers who were responding to a complaint call that there was a crowd gathering at the shop at Peachtree Battle Barber Shop at 2333 Peachtree Road in Atlanta on Friday, April 24, 2020. The Troopers found the business in compliance.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

For four weeks, Georgians were under an executive order to shelter in place to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But records show law enforcement agencies took a softer approach on violators of Gov. Brian Kemp’s order, favoring warnings over violations.

The Georgia State Patrol issued 20 citations for people violating the order since April 3, and state parks officials wrote just one. Metro Atlanta officials also reported only a handful of citations or charges for those refusing to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

With the governor lifting many of the restrictions, Georgia's campaign against the virus enters a new phase – one that will put a different burden on law enforcement officials.

They’re now tasked with making sure restaurants, barber shops, theaters and other businesses follow a host of new regulations. And many agencies face a question of how to enforce the array of rules.

“I think if everybody will abide by this, it will be okay,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But it’s going to be contingent on everybody abiding.”

Sills, whose county is about 75 miles southeast east of Atlanta, is among the sheriffs who took enforcing Kemp’s order seriously.

Days after the order went into effect, Putnam deputies arrested three 18-year-old boys found in a car with a 14-year-old girl smoking marijuana. They were charged with violating the order.

“We set the tone early,” Sills said. “And we didn’t really have many problems thereafter.”

The Georgia State Patrol has issued citations for 20 people accused of violating the shelter-in-place order, according to Lt. Stephanie Stallings. Troopers have also issued 247 warnings and shuttered 39 businesses defying the rules, including several that closed voluntarily.

Gov. Brian Kemp will lift a statewide shelter-in-place order for most of Georgia’s 10.6 million residents starting Friday as he continues to roll back coronavirus restrictions.

With a wave of shuttered businesses allowed to resume operations over the last week, Stallings said fewer potential violations were reported. She suggested it could be linked to “folks understanding the order and the importance of it.”

The Department of Natural Resources has taken a similar approach. Its officers have doled out more than 800 verbal warnings at state parks, beaches and waterways but issued one criminal violation. That was a boat operator accused on April 4 of underage possession of drugs and alcohol.

“I know there’s some bad actors out there and we continue to do enforcement. That’s not what we want to do,” Kemp said in an interview Thursday. “People want this to succeed. They don’t want to go back to another shelter in place. They want to move on to other activities in the summer.”

‘Non-issue’

Still, some worry about a crush of new calls for potential violators that could strain stretched-thin law enforcement departments and delay responses to other crimes.

“What the governors have put out, and including what President Trump has put out, they are not laws. They are nothing more than edicts,” said Vince Champion, the Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. “It is another layer and something that puts a stress on law enforcement needlessly.

At a press conference earlier this week, Kemp said the lack of violations was a sign that Georgians were taking the measures seriously.

“I’ve talked about the non-issue over the weekend with the number of complaints we had because so many people were compliant. People were excited. They were calling, they were sending me pictures, going, ‘I went to the barbershop. They only let one person in.’”

One example of the scant calls: Troopers were called to the Peachtree Battle Barber Shop in Buckhead to investigate a report that customers were too close together while waiting outside. But the troopers saw no violations and left after a reminder to stay six feet apart.

That could start changing as more businesses decide to reopen, though many of the owners are wary of running afoul of the state rules and unnerving customers.

“I’m super nervous about this thing. You wouldn’t be smart if you weren’t,” said Rich Clark, the co-owner of Hugo’s Oyster Bar in Roswell and C&S Seafood & Oyster Bar in Vinings, which both opened for sit-down service Monday.

‘Make it worse’

But it will be impossible for law enforcement officers to oversee social distancing and other regulations at every business, Champion said.

“We’re never in the right place at the right time according to the public,” he said. “And this is only going to make it worse.”

Several law enforcement officials said they’ve placed a priority on educating citizens of the changing regulations rather than being quick to issue citations at an uncertain time.

“We’re using a common-sense approach,” said Sgt. Ashley Henson of the Paulding Sheriff’s Office, who said groups have dispersed quickly and complied with regulations when deputies are called to a potential violation.

It’s the same scene in Cherokee County, where Capt. Jay Baker of the sheriff’s office said a “polite conversation” usually works to defuse a potential violation.

“That has worked so far with no issues and we are confident that technique will work in most instances,” he said.

TYBEE ISLAND, GA - APRIL 3, 2020: Tybee Island’s beach entrances were closed to the public until Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order required local authorities open the beaches for exercise outside, with social distancing of at least 6 feet. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
TYBEE ISLAND, GA - APRIL 3, 2020: Tybee Island’s beach entrances were closed to the public until Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order required local authorities open the beaches for exercise outside, with social distancing of at least 6 feet. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

The situation is tenser along Georgia’s coast, where Kemp opened the beachfront over the objections of local officials and assigned state authorities to enforce bans on gatherings and other restrictions.

Officers with the Department of Natural Resources issued at least 551 warnings to beach-goers since the shoreline was reopened in April 3 and no violations, said Candice Broce, Kemp’s spokeswoman.

Local authorities have written a handful of tickets, including slapping a couple with two $1,400 citations on Wednesday for walking through a closed crossover to the Tybee Island's beach.

That was welcomed by some local lawmakers. Tybee Island Councilman John Branigin said many of the town’s roughly 3,000 residents were resentful of visitors who defied local rules by hopping closures and crossing forbidden dunes.

“It makes them madder when they watch officers ride by and do nothing,’ he said. “It’s created a confrontational mentality between residents and non-residents than was ever necessary – and it’s just going to get worse.”

Staff Writer Ligaya Figueras contributed to this report.

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