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Foss: How to enforce social distancing?

Foss: How to enforce social distancing?

Foss: How to enforce social distancing?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday
Photographer: Governor's Office

At his Sunday press briefing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded disgusted. 

Claiming that the state had received 25,000 complaints of reopening violations by New York businesses, he said that he personally phoned a couple of bars and restaurants where patrons were photographed flouting social distancing rules. 

“I said to them, ‘You’re playing with your [liquor license],” Cuomo recalled. “You are responsible for the people in your establishment.” 

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If I ran a bar or restaurant and received a call from the governor warning me that I could lose my liquor license, I would personally place masks on the faces of all my customers and force them to stand six feet apart. 

Now, we all now the governor can’t call every single business that disregards social distancing guidelines and threaten them. 

Calls like that might be effective, but they aren’t feasible on a mass scale. Ensuring businesses follow the state’s reopening guidelines requires an actual strategy beyond having the state’s highest official shame violators into obedience. 

Enforcement has always been one of the thornier pieces of the coronavirus puzzle.

Issuing guidelines for businesses and individuals to follow is one thing. Making sure they do so is another. 

The panicked, early days of the pandemic brought near-universal compliance with the state’s orders. Now the combination of warmer weather and the gradual resumption of business activity is causing an uptick in social distancing violations. 

In his Sunday press briefing, Cuomo said that it’s the responsibility of local governments to monitor the compliance of reopening guidelines, and threatened to reverse reopening in areas that fail to do so. 

What still isn’t clear is exactly how municipalities are supposed to deal with violations, and the risk of overkill is high. 

An executive order issued by Cuomo in March gives law enforcement a variety of enforcement tools, which range from issuing verbal warnings to charging violators with criminal misdemeanors that could land someone in jail for up to a year or net them a $10,000 fine. 

Asking law enforcement to add social distancing enforcement to their long list of responsibilities was a questionable strategy even before anti-police brutality protests exploded across the country. 

Indeed, you have to wonder whether racial disparities in social distancing enforcement helped fuel the protests. A Legal Aid Society study found that a social distancing complaint was more likely to result in an arrest or summons in New York City’s majority Black or Latino precincts, even though the majority of complaints came from predominantly white neighborhoods.  

Given this finding, and the tensions exposed by the death of George Floyd, I’d caution against tasking the cops with social distancing enforcement. 

I’d also caution against asking store employees to handle it.  

A growing body of research shows that mask wearing helps slow the spread of COVID-19, but this simple protective measure has been denounced by some as an infringement on their freedom. 

In Orange County, Calif., the chief health officer resigned after she received death threats for requiring masks in public. This week in Albany, the owner of a beauty supply store on Central Avenue was assaulted when he asked a customer who wasn’t wearing a mask to leave. We can’t expect store employees to put their lives on the line to deal with those who refuse to follow the rules. 

So what can be done? 

Ideally, people would just do the right thing, rendering questions of enforcement moot. 

Based on what I’ve seen, that's unlikely. 

Which means that another approach to social distancing enforcement is needed. 

Cuomo did say that the State Liquor Authority is on the lookout for violations. That seems reasonable enough.  

I’d also suggest enlisting neighborhood leaders to reach out to residents and reiterate the importance of social distancing and mask wearing might also be helpful. 

A trusted community leader might be in a better position to educate and change behavior than law enforcement or store employees. The city of Chicago is using “social distancing ambassadors” to do outreach on its popular car-free commuting route, the Lakefront Trail. Would something like that be worth trying in the Capital Region? 

We’re never going to see 100 percent compliance with mask wearing and social distancing. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.  

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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