What happens if you break the COVID curfew?


By Ellie Heffernan

Gov. Roy Cooper’s modified “Stay at Home” order is forcing local businesses and residents to make changes, but Orange County law enforcement officials are responding with the same tactics they’ve used since March. Authorities throughout the county say they will rely on education to encourage voluntary compliance with an order that is difficult to strictly enforce.

The Chapel Hill Police Department will rely on existing partnerships with local businesses formed through organizations like the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, explained Ran Northam, interim communications manager for the Town of Chapel Hill.

“Lead with education. Share what those orders are,” Northam said. “And when we’ve done that so far, the result has been very positive. Our community has answered the call to do that, and I think that’s probably one reason why our numbers have fared as well as they have.”

The new “Stay at Home” order, instituted because of a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases across the state, took effect Dec. 11. It requires people to remain at home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. These restrictions will last until Jan. 8.  There are many exceptions within the order, however.

For example, retail businesses selling groceries, medication, health care supplies and fuel can remain open.  Individuals who are traveling to and from work, grocery shopping, seeking medical attention, caring for loved ones, attending religious services or traveling in and out of state don’t have to stay home.

This large number of exceptions means voluntary compliance is the most effective strategy, said Chris Atack, captain of the administrative division of the Carrboro Police Department.

“There are so many exceptions to the 10 to 5 a.m. rule, that the amount of investigative work that would have to be done by the officer to determine that someone didn’t have one of these exceptions could be problematic,” Atack said. “So, for the most part, in a pinch, I could see us enforcing this if really pushed into the extreme, but for the most part, it’s education and voluntary compliance.”

The Carrboro Police Department has found residents are likely to follow COVID-19-related guidelines, said Atack, who noted that compliance and education have long been key strategies in the department.

“We’ve been trying to get voluntary compliance in the department for years across a myriad of things,” Atack said. “There are certain incidents where we don’t have a choice, like domestic violence and other stuff like that where the crimes [are] against persons and people are hurt. But for the most part, it’s a voluntary compliance. We do a lot of written warnings for speeding violations if they’re not egregious.”

Individuals can theoretically be charged with violating a state order and required to pay a fine, if they break the order, Atack pointed out, but this isn’t the department’s preferred response. The same goes for the CHPD, Northam said.

Even if individuals repeatedly or egregiously violate COVID-19-related guidelines, they will most likely be referred to the Orange County Pre-Arrest Diversion Program. Northam said a number of people were referred to the program at the pandemic’s start for breaking crowd limitation guidelines.

The program provides law enforcement officers with the discretion to divert individuals who commit certain low-level misdemeanor offenses from the criminal justice system. These individuals are then provided with accountability and appropriate programming that provides information about collateral consequences and addresses any therapeutic needs. People can also avoid receiving a charge and having to go to court.

“It’s an opportunity to show that you were in the wrong by law and therefore there is some sort of penalty to that, but maybe this is a one-time thing, and you made a mistake. And this is an opportunity, so it’s not as harsh,” Northam said. “But there are other charges again up to the violation of those state orders and so on that can be reserved for egregious violations and repeat offenders.”

The CHPD hasn’t seen many repeat or egregious violations in general, and such occurrences dwindled as the pandemic continued. Northam said they saw many such violations when college students first arrived in Chapel Hill.

“The issue with the students sometimes was quite possibly the fact that they were coming from different communities. They didn’t know. Maybe they were coming from different states and didn’t know exactly what the limitations were or weren’t tuned in as much as they should be,” Northam said. “So, there was a lot of education with that, leading with education, encouraging folks to do their best to comply, and that quick compliance was usually seen.”

Education will also be a key tool used by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, according to a brief email from Alicia Stemper, director of public information and special services.

“Gov. Cooper’s order is clear. We will respond to complaints as we get them; our goal throughout the pandemic has been to educate the public and encourage their compliance,” Stemper said. 


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