When Ohio State University in Columbus held a pandemic-conscious virtual commencement ceremony this month, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook gave a video address to a safely spaced crowd in parking lots outside.
The appearance of caution was deceiving.
The real action was blocks away, said Emily Foster, a university retiree: Student parties raged on lawns, porches, alleys and even rooftops for three days in plain violation of the state’s shelter-in-place order — and without interference from police. Foster called to complain, concerned that the coronavirus would spread in the neighborhood and beyond as students returned home.
Police wouldn’t act. “I was told that they were concentrating on education, not enforcement,” Foster said.
As U.S. states revive, it’s been left to local governments to enforce new rules on how to contain COVID-19. Ill-equipped, understaffed and with limited powers, few are ready to police face masks and social distancing. That weakness was highlighted this week when Tesla CEO Elon Musk steamrolled Alameda County, California, which couldn’t stop him from reopening his factory more than a week before it was initially allowed.
As of Thursday, all but five U.S. states had either already begun reopening or were scheduled to, many of them with rules meant to keep residents safe. Scientists warn that unregulated commerce will mean a death toll that soars far above the 85,000 fatalities in the U.S. so far.
“We need really detailed guidance from the federal government, which still leaves the issue of whether local governments have the capacity to enforce the rules,” said Ashish Jha, director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute. “In areas that don’t have the capacity to enforce things like crowd limits in bars, you are going to see outbreaks. And the impact of that is going to be substantial and severe.”
More than half of cities expect to cut services, including police, according to the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Counties are even more vulnerable because they oversee health departments, hospitals, nursing homes, emergency medical services and coroners, “which unfortunately are in high demand,” said Teryn Zmuda, chief economist at the National Association of Counties. By July 2021, counties will lose $114 billion in revenue and incur an additional $30 billion in costs because of COVID-19, she said.
Now, underfunded health departments accustomed to policing the isolated restaurant health code violation are responsible for making sure people are far enough apart in all of them. Police and sheriff’s deputies are being asked to crack down on crowds without proper protective equipment.
Law enforcement “wasn’t ready for this,” said David Mahoney, the sheriff of Dane County, Wisconsin, who is the incoming president of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Opponents of lockdown orders have been quick to play up incidents like the fining of a surfer using a closed California beach and an undercover sting of a woman doing nails in her Texas home. But those are exceptions.
In fact, many agencies are reluctant to get tough. Mahoney said tough enforcement drains resources from fighting crime and can damage community relationships.
“Everything I do is based on relationships, on gaining trust and legitimacy,” said Mahoney. “It is my personal belief that taking a heavy-handed approach would be counterproductive.”
New York City police have been accused of using excessive force and targeting minorities while enforcing social distancing and face mask rules. “This situation is untenable,” said Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch. Officers have received no practical guidance, he said, “leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves.”
In California, which had one of the strictest stay-home policies, police officers in Los Angeles haven’t arrested anyone for violating the order against large gatherings. Nor have officers in Sacramento, where “education remains our primary goal,” said police officer Karl Chan. The same “education-first direction” stands in Portland, Oregon, said Police Bureau spokesperson Nola Watts.
In Tennessee, local officials lack any clear-cut authority: Republican Gov. Bill Lee called his reopening order a “pledge” because it’s voluntary. Restaurants are urged, not ordered, to seat diners safely apart and to keep bars closed.
Good public health enforcement has two elements: health departments and public-safety agencies, said Oscar Alleyne, chief program officer for the National Association of County and City Health Officials in Washington.
Health agencies can order quarantines, license facilities, inspect them for compliance and shut them down for violations, he said. Public-safety agencies enforce orders that violators ignore. The division of labor has broken down in the pandemic, with states ordering far broader mandates and parts of the public resisting restrictions.
Local health departments have fewer personnel to respond. Nationally, they’ve lost 50,000 workers in a decade. Cincinnati’s has cut 40% of its workforce during the current pandemic. “The idea that local health departments are going to be able to go out and do these inspections on an ongoing basis isn’t real,” Alleyne said.
Health agencies have also found themselves short of respect.
Musk, the Tesla CEO, opened his production factory Monday despite a request from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency. President Donald Trump tweeted out encouragement for Musk,and Gov. Gavin Newsom described the problem as a “county issue” without taking a side.
By Wednesday, the county had backed down, giving the already-open factory permission to operate.
Musk is just the most high-profile rebel. In Los Angeles, police have been forwarding reports of businesses operating outside the rules to City Attorney Mike Feuer. His office has filed 60 criminal complaints, more than half against stores selling vaping supplies, pot, cigars and cigarettes. The city cut water and power to one particularly recalcitrant offender.
“Those stores are clearly not essential to the basic functioning of our life right now,” Feuer said.
Some openings are political. A Dallas beauty salon owner refused to close her salon and was sent briefly to jail. It earned her celebrity status among conservative Republicans; a policy reversal from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott; a televised haircut for Sen. Ted Cruz — and more than $500,000 for her own GoFundMe campaign.
Refusal to enforce the rules has become a badge of honor for some politicians. In North Carolina, the Johnston County sheriff has refused to enforce limits on church attendance. A sheriff in Racine County in southern Wisconsin refused to enforce that state’s stay-home order — now struck down by the state supreme court — calling it a violation of individual rights. So did a sheriff in Douglas County, Illinois. And in Greeley, Colorado, the Weld County health department is allowing restaurants to open in violation of Gov. Jared Polis’ rules.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered the public to wear masks or risk fines beginning May 8, drawing a quick response from a police union.
“Our officers work every single day to bridge the gap with our community and earn their trust,” wrote Jedidiah Pineau, president of the Warwick Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7.
“We will not stand idly by and allow Governor Raimondo’s overreaching order to tear that bridge down,” he wrote. “And we will certainly not be a part of it by enforcing this order against our community.”
HUNTINGTON — Schools across the Tri-State are finding creative ways to say goodbye to students who will be moving on to middle school, high school or graduating and entering the “real world,” despite conducting remote learning since mid-March.
Village of Barboursville Elementary School honored its fifth-graders Friday with a graduation parade, where students and families waved to faculty and staff from the safety of their cars and received certificates and a trophy at the end of the drive.
Students were given caps and tassels to wear as they were handed their “diplomas” and asked to decorate vehicles, similar to that of a homecoming parade.
Assistant Principal Lauren Werthammer said although the ceremony was unconventional, it’s something the staff would like to see become tradition at the school.
“If ‘normal’ as we knew it ever happens again, this is something we want to continue and maybe get the rest of the school involved,” she said. “Our fifth-grade students, parents and faculty had an excellent day; it couldn’t have turned out any more perfect.”
Werthammer said during a time when life seems impersonal, the parade was a great way to say goodbye to the students.
“We wear masks and cover up our smiles, and we were just able to share that with our students and our families today — lots of smiles shared and lots of excitement,” she said. “It was like every kid got their own unique moment to celebrate their accomplishments as they symbolically drove down Pirate Drive one last time. They got to see all of their teachers. Typically it’s just fifth-grade teachers and their families, but today they were able to thank and say goodbye to maybe their kindergarten teacher or classroom assistant. It was just really special.”
At Cabell Midland High School, graduating seniors typically have a final walk through the school to commemorate their final days of class, but this year conducted a drive-thru event to say their farewells to teachers and staff Friday morning.
Students were not permitted to leave their cars, but teachers lined the sidewalks with posters and signs of congratulations.
Covenant School in Huntington also celebrated its seven graduating seniors by holding a “mobile graduation” event.
Faculty and staff visited each student at their home in full regalia, podium and all, to ensure they felt celebrated amid the COVID-19 chaos.
Graduates also received an invitation to the formal commencement ceremony tentatively set for Aug. 8.
Cabell Midland High School has a rescheduled graduation date of June 26 at the Mountain Health Arena in Huntington.
CHARLESTON — Free COVID-19 testing provided by the state will occur in Cabell and Kanawha counties May 22 and 23, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said Friday.
The testing is targeted at minority and other vulnerable populations, but no one will be turned away, Crouch said. An I.D. or other proof of residency is the only requirement, but those under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Those without symptoms can also be tested. Testing will occur at existing testing sites and mobile units will be used to reach more rural areas; in Cabell County, locations will be determined and announced at a later date.
The free tests are part of a plan developed by the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs, DHHR and the West Virginia National Guard and targets residents who have struggled to be seen by a physician or do not have insurance to pay for testing.
The group was assembled in response to the disproportionate number of black and other minority West Virginians diagnosed with COVID-19. Though only making up 3.6% of the population, 7.4% of all cases in the state are black West Virginians and 30.4% of those patients have been hospitalized, compared to just 15% of white COVID-19 patients. In Cabell County, 16.36% of all cases are black or other than white, despite making up only about 5% of the population.
Testing began Friday and will continue Saturday in Berkeley, Jefferson, Mercer and Raleigh counties. Gov. Jim Justice said Friday during his afternoon press briefing that more than 300 people had already been tested.
Fayette, Mercer, Marion, Mineral and Monongalia counties will also receive testing. Additional areas that require testing and additional dates for testing will be assessed and announced later.
Crouch also provided an update on testing at assisted-living centers and child-care centers.
He said 408 residents and 655 staff members of assisted-living facilities have been tested, with just four staff members testing positive so far. As for child care, he said 22% of all child-care centers have been tested, or 384 staff members, with three positives.
Crouch said about 4% of the entire population has been tested, though that is not enough to determine the prevalence of the virus in the state.
Two new deaths related to COVID-19 were reported Friday — a 76-year-old woman from Wayne County and a 68-year-old man from Kanawha County. The total number of fatalities in the state is now 64.
Thirteen new positive cases were reported statewide Friday, for a total of 1,447. More than 2,700 new test results were received by the state, for a total of 71,682.
Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (seven), Berkeley (205), Boone (nine), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (55), Clay (two), Fayette (38), Gilmer (eight), Grant (six), Greenbrier (eight), Hampshire (12), Hancock (12), Hardy (25), Harrison (34), Jackson (138), Jefferson (96), Kanawha (197), Lewis (four), Lincoln (five), Logan (14), Marion (46), Marshall (23), Mason (15), McDowell (six), Mercer (12), Mineral (26), Mingo (three), Monongalia (114), Monroe (six), Morgan (17), Nicholas (nine), Ohio (38), Pendleton (five), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (two), Preston (15), Putnam (29), Raleigh (10), Randolph (five), Ritchie (one), Roane (eight), Summers (one), Taylor (eight), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (six), Wayne (96), Wetzel (seven), Wirt (three), Wood (45) and Wyoming (two).
In Ohio, outdoor dining, personal care services and medically licensed services resumed Friday. There was no briefing from Gov. Mike DeWine.
There were 597 new positive cases reported, for a total of 26,954, and 47 new deaths, for a total of 1,581.
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced state campground cabins and golf will resume June 1, with camping permitted June 11. Playgrounds and public pools will remain closed, though aquatic centers can reopen for laps or water therapy.
There were 252 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the state Friday, bringing the total to 7,444, and four new deaths, for a total of 332.
There were 1,412,121 cases of COVID-19 reported in the U.S. as of Friday, with a total of 85,990 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.