From the Ozarks to New Jersey: How Should Social Distancing Be Enforced?

Memorial Day is known as the unofficial start of summer, which means parties on the beach, grilling poolside, and getting together with friends and family – and that has health officials worried.

Over the weekend, we saw huge crowds at the Lake of Ozarks in Missouri, Daytona and Clearwater Beach, FL, and other summer hotspots across the country, even as those states stressed the importance of social distancing.

It’s human nature to want to celebrate warmer weather, but all this partying could lead to new waves of COVID-19 cases. Health officials are urging pool partiers and those who visited these locations to self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent spreading the virus in their home states.

The holiday weekend raises several questions about our new normal. How should social distancing be enforced, and who’s responsible for enforcing it?

Memorial Day Crowds

Several videos and photos of massive Memorial Day crowds went viral over the weekend, and many participants weren’t wearing face masks or practicing social distancing. Partiers gathered in pools, on the beach, and in the streets in Florida, Missouri, and Toronto, among other locations.

In most places, state governors and local officials urged the public to practice social distancing, but that didn’t seem to work as well as they’d hoped.

In the Ozarks in Missouri, a popular summer destination in the tri-state area, large crowds gathered in pools on social media. Yet at the time, local officials didn’t receive any calls or complaints. This means attendees were likely comfortable getting close to one another, but that doesn’t mean they were safe from the virus.

As crowds gathered on the beaches in Clearwater, Florida, the police started cutting off access to these places. However, that only drove beachgoers to other local beaches that were not yet closed off to the public. As it turns out, preventing large crowds is tough work.

Police on the Front Lines

Police aren’t always comfortable carrying out health policies. They are designed to keep their communities safe, but the coronavirus is new territory for everyone. While some police departments and units may support their governor’s wishes, it’s hard to be proactive when it comes to enforcing social distancing. Some units may also be unequipped to enforce these measures.

In many areas, the police have been generally hesitant to carry out these policies on the ground, and many critics have warned that social distancing enforcement is leading to over-policing, particularly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. There have been a few dozen arrests over the last few months, and 90% of the people arrested in encounters related to social distancing enforcement have been black or Hispanic.

While arrests remain relatively rare across the country, police in New York  and other major cities have been seen harassing people on the street for not wearing their face mask correctly, issuing fines, pulling people over on their way to church, and even hitting people for not complying with the latest guidelines, but only in a few extreme cases.

This can erode the public’s trust in the police, making it that much more difficult to enforce these policies. The decision to wear a face mask and practice social distancing is often personal, and in many cases, it’s not clear if breaking these guidelines is punishable by law.

Social distancing guidelines also vary by county, city, and state, and many people may be unaware of the latest regulations.

Low-income individuals and the elderly may have trouble complying with these regulations. They may not have access to face masks and other protective gear. Social distancing can also be a luxury in some communities. Instead of relying on the internet for information and other essential services, low-income individuals may need to gather in close quarters at food banks, community centers, churches, and other public spaces.

Underfunded and Overworked

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets across the country. Nearly 40 million people have already filed for unemployment since March, and that includes firefighters, police officers, and other public officials.

As tax revenue declines and the costs go up, cities and states are laying off essential personnel in nearly every department, including police officers and public safety officials. Towns and cities are limiting overtime pay, reducing hours, and sending people home without a paycheck to keep their operating costs as low as possible.

Instead of having police officers enforce social distancing, some cities and towns are turning to volunteers. The city of Clearwater, FL is having “civilian ambassadors” roam the streets and beaches to make sure people are following the latest safety guidelines, but training these individuals and getting these programs off the ground can be costly and time-consuming.

As the pandemic continues, states and cities will likely have fewer resources to enforce social distancing in the months to come, unless they receive additional funding from the federal government.

It’s important to enforce the latest public health policies, but it’s clear that the U.S. does not have the resources to enforce these policies in a country of over 300 million people. We cannot ask public officials to police every aspect of public and private life. We are all going to have to work together to keep our communities safe. Remind your patients of the importance of social distancing, even as the weather starts to heat up.

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