Enforcement in the form of penalties for violators of COVID-19 restrictions “is not crystal clear,” says the leader of San Juan Basin Public Health.
But Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director, said the goal has never been to emphasize penalties; rather, it’s more about getting everyone to recognize the seriousness of the pandemic.
Statewide, the goal has been for local agencies – from health agencies like hers to police departments and sheriff’s offices – to coordinate their efforts to educate residents so they’ll treat COVID-19 restrictions as seriously as a homeowner on the Florida coast during a hurricane or a homeowner in the north Animas Valley during a forest fire.
“I don’t think the pandemic is different from other types of emergencies,” Jollon said. “These conversations come up when we talk about evacuations. Enforcement during an evacuation order is not crystal clear either.
“What is the enforcement mechanism if individuals don’t clear brush around their homes prior to fire season? I don’t think there’s a good enforcement mechanism for that. But if you don’t abide by those practices, you can put a whole community, a whole neighborhood in jeopardy.”
Discussions about how to enforce COVID-19 restrictions continues across the state, but Jollon said the issue remains “unsettled.”
“Unfortunately, with a pandemic, it is occurring over a long time period, when we have an unsettled enforcement pathway,” she said.
Failure to put teeth in enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions has become an issue locally – for example on social media with people calling for authorities to come down hard on Top That Frozen Yogurt, a Main Avenue dessert shop that advertised 10% discounts for people who come into the shop without face masks.
The “unsettled” nature of enforcement discussion was clear Tuesday when the Durango City Council discussed the issue – but failed to agree on any action to take.
City councilors discussed creating a mandatory mask zone downtown – with fines ranging from $50 to $500 for noncompliance.
Mayor Dean Brookie and several community members wanted to extend the order to include the entire city – to nab mask-ordinance flouting customers in big-box stores, gas stations and grocery stores.
But Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said patrol officers are short-staffed, and it would be more feasible to enforce an order in a smaller area.
City Councilor Kim Baxter suggested using federal COVID-19 relief money to help with enforcement – perhaps hiring employees to help the short-staffed DPD enforce public health orders.
In the end, no enforcement-related votes were taken.
Currently, Brammer said police officers will investigate calls about violations of COVID-19 restrictions, document the incident, assess the validity of the complaint and compile the reports. He said any decisions about enforcement actions would be up to the District Attorney’s Office or SJBPH.
“We’ll assist in any investigation, we’ll look at it, and we will develop the information through our partnerships,” he said. “We just don’t have the statutory power to take action upon it.”
Ultimately, it’s not individual penalties for violating COVID-19 restrictions that are as important as getting the word out about how serious it is for the community’s safety to abide by the rules, Jollon said.
“When will the hammer come down? The hammer will come down when the hospital cannot function and services are not available in our community. That’s the hammer. That’s the real hammer,” Jollon said. “We as a community need to get this right. And that’s the conversation we need to have, rather than the whose-job-is-it-to-enforce conversation.”