While local law enforcement agencies have seen widespread compliance with the shelter in place order announced Monday by Gov. Larry Hogan, Frederick Police Capt. Dwight Sommers was still concerned not everyone understood the order.
“I was walking around yesterday after the announcement and people were saying things like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to pick up some cigarettes,’ or ‘I have to get supplies now before the curfew goes into effect at 8 o’clock,’” Sommers said. “There is no curfew, but that’s what people’s fear is, that, if they’re out past 8 o’clock they’ll be arrested. No.”
The order, the latest step taken by the governor to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, is intended to ensure people refrain from leaving their homes if necessary, but there are many exemptions and caveats to the order, Sommers said. For example, people with essential jobs are free to commute to and from work, residents can still go grocery shopping, shop for pet or livestock care products. Doctor’s appointments and picking up essential medicine or prescriptions were also exempt, according to the order.
Taking walks or exercising outside were still allowed under the order, with the only caveat being a recommendation from state health officials to restrict engaging in such activity only with members of the same household. The ban on gatherings of more than 10 people also remained in effect.
“I would encourage people to go and actually read the governor’s executive order that was issued yesterday, because in there it explicitly states who’s exempt and what isn’t … On page three of that other, there is a host of exemptions to what people can leave the house for,” Sommers said.
A better understanding of the law would also help with a flood of calls that Frederick police and other law enforcement agencies have received since Monday’s order went into effect at 8 p.m. that evening, the captain said.
“[The callers] think everybody is in violation of the order, but for all of these calls we’ve gotten for people who are supposedly not in compliance, I don’t think we’ve substantiated any of them,” Sommers said.
Perhaps due to the widespread misconceptions about the order, many members of the public aren’t on the same page as police departments and other law enforcement agencies tasked with ensuring the order is followed.
If law enforcement officers find someone has deliberately failed to comply with the stay-at-home order, such as leaving their home for a non-essential, non-exempt reason, or attend an event or other gathering banned by the governor’s previous order, police can charge that person with a misdemeanor offense punishable upon conviction by a jail sentence of up to a year or a $5,000 fine or both, according to the order. With that being said, both Frederick police officers and local state troopers were given explicit instructions on enforcement of the order.
“Troopers will not make traffic stops simply to ask drivers where they are going to determine if their travel is essential or not,” a Maryland State Police press release issued Tuesday reads in part. “If, in the course of the regular performance of his [or] her duties, such as during a crash investigation or a traffic stop, the trooper develops information indicating the individual was engaged in non-essential travel, enforcement action can be taken, in consultation with the state’s attorney’s office in that jurisdiction.”
Both Sommers and Sheriff Chuck Jenkins expressed similar sentiments, saying police and deputies were not roaming around the county looking for people to charge with violating the order.
“Our deputies are not going to making traffic stops solely to determine why a person is out and we’re not going to require documentation for a person’s reason for travelling, “ Jenkins said when reached for comment. “I can say if we respond to a crash or have a specific reason to stop a vehicle we may ask, but I think that some people have the impression that this [order] means some kind of martial law. It does not.”
While not every resident was on the same page with law enforcement, Jenkins said he was confident all area law enforcement agencies were. Local police agencies held several meetings over the last few weeks to ensure their response to such developments as the governor’s most recent order was unified.
Sommers emphasized that, while officers and deputies will still respond to calls for service and enforce the law, the safety of the public was foremost on everyone’s minds.
“We’re all in this together, and I think it’s important for people to know that … we’re not heavy-handed when we’re going out and interacting with members of our communities,” Sommers said. “We’re here to provide solutions to problems and education to help our community get through this, together.”