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State to get tough on COVID violators

Administration moving toward enforcement amid spike in cases

Months ago, when the state started to issue orders designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf emphasized voluntary compliance, saying self-interest and concern for loved ones, co-workers and fellow citizens should be enough motivation, when asked about enforcement by reporters.

Cases declined, and the administration relaxed restrictions, allowing all the counties to go from red to green on the reopening scale. But in recent weeks, cases have risen again, and the administration has taken an increasingly strict approach to enforcement.

On Wednesday, a news release from the governor’s office encouraged compliance with the four orders in place for worker safety, building safety, universal masking and indoor dining and alcohol service limitations — while also explaining all the options for filing complaints about noncompliance at workplaces and businesses.

“Pennsylvanians can play a role by appropriately reporting suspected violations of these orders put in place to keep people safe,” the news release stated.

The state police as well as all local law enforcement agencies have the power to enforce the orders, which are based on Pennsylvania’s Disease Control and Prevention Act of 1955 and The Administrative Code of 1929, according to the news release.

Local police departments have received COVID-19 enforcement guidance from the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, which has forwarded that guidance from the state police, according to the news release.

The masking order remains the centerpiece of the administration’s mitigation strategy — “paramount,” according to the news release.

There are exceptions for those with a medical condition that would make masking a problem, for those who couldn’t take one off themselves, for those under 2 years old and for those who need to read lips, according to the news release.

But because the order doesn’t require those claiming an exemption to prove they’re entitled to one, the masking order is hard to enforce, according to city Police Chief Janice Freehling and City Manager Ken Decker.

“Police officers have to take your word for it,” Decker said, comparing the situation to speeding enforcement difficulties that would exist if there were an analogous exemption that didn’t require any documentation.

The city police haven’t received any mask-related complaints so far, according to Freehling.

If they did get a complaint about a business not enforcing the requirement, an officer would likely visit and express the hope that the violator would come into compliance, she said.

The city is requiring its employees to wear masks and to follow the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Decker said.

The Police Department is requiring its employees to wear masks in the station, Freehling said.

Officers are also expected to wear masks when interacting with the public, and to keep their distance, but there are cases where that isn’t feasible, the chief said.

For the most part, officers are OK with those expectations, she said.

“They want to remain healthy, too,” she said.

To pretend to be entitled to an exemption is not OK, according to the administration.

“For all those who are claiming an exception who do not have one, they are potentially putting the lives of those they encounter at risk,” the news release stated.

The Liquor Control Board has jurisdiction over alcohol service, and can suspend establishment licenses.

The Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over restaurant operations and can send inspectors to follow up on complaints about failure to mask and keep social distance, and it can issue warnings and levy fines, according to the news release. It also can forward complaints to the DoH for enforcement, the news release stated.

The Department of Health has jurisdiction over health in workplaces and has issued warning letters — and could levy fines and issue closure orders if mandates are not followed, according to the news release.

The Department of Health accepts workplace complaints via a form available at https://expressforms.pa.gov/apps/pa/doh/COVID-19-Complaint, although workers are encouraged to try to work out their issues with their employers first if they believe they are not being protected, according to the news release.

Worker or building safety complaints can also be taken directly to local law enforcement, according to the news release.

Basic LCB enforcement is by the state police.

Complaints sent to the Departments of Agriculture and Health may also be routed to state or local police, according to the news release.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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