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Harford police: Governor’s stay at home order will not change enforcement approach

Though Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay at home order Monday to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, enforcement of his order will remain largely the same as it has been in recent weeks, Harford County law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

The order, which directs Marylanders to stay home except for necessary trips out in public or to perform essential jobs in additions to other restrictions, affords law enforcement the authority to charge violators with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, a $5,000 fine or both, the order states. But, law enforcement officials stressed, that does not mean police will stop passersby and ask where they are going or seek out people to charge.

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Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said that his deputies have responded to some calls for violations of the order, but they have not resulted in an arrest. Deputies are using the opportunity to make citizens aware of the order’s provisions, reserving charges for only egregious and repeat offenses.

“We are not going to be out there stopping cars,” he said. “I do not want anybody to believe that is our plan ... . This is an opportunity for us to go out and educate the people.”

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Gahler said the list of essential duties and reasons for leaving the house would be too many to list and that Harford citizens have been largely compliant with the governor’s orders so far. He encouraged the public to take the threat of coronavirus seriously.

“If we run across a repeat or flagrant violation … we will place no charges until consultation with the state’s attorney,” Gahler said. “I am certainly hopeful that we won’t get to that point.”

Gahler also noted that a charge of violating the governor’s order could be appended to another charge of a separate crime. For instance, a burglary could be construed to be a violation of the order and beget a charge for violating the order. That decision, he said, would be made by the State’s Attorney’s Office.

State’s Attorney Albert Peisinger wrote in a message that each case would have to be independently evaluated and that local law enforcement would coordinate with his office before making such a charge.

To date, only two people have been charged with violating the order — both in connection to parties they allegedly hosted — spokesperson for the Maryland State Police Ron Snyder said.

A Charles County man was charged Saturday with two counts of violating the emergency order limiting crowd size after he alleged organized two events of more than 10 people in the past week, including a bonfire with more than 60 people, police said.

Monday, a Lutherville man was charged by state police with violating the governor’s order for allegedly hosting a party of 10 teenage guests at a Carroll County hotel. He’s also facing 10 counts of allowing minors to possess alcohol

State police are responsible for collating local agencies’ data on violations of the order. Law enforcement agencies across Maryland have answered 476 calls for service related to noncompliance as of 2 p.m. Tuesday.

“State police have conducted close to 7,000 business and crowd compliance checks since March 24," Snyder said. “Most of the people were in compliance, those who were not were given warnings ... follow-ups were and have been conducted.”

A breakdown of violations by jurisdiction was not available from state police as of Tuesday.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office calls for service logs show deputies have responded to a handful of reports of too many people gathering in one place over the past week. Those calls have ranged from youth playing basketball in a Joppa park, people gathering to play soccer at a school field in Bel Air and a field in Jarrettsville, a party in Edgewood and a group congregating at a church in Abingdon.

Cristie Hopkins, a spokesperson for the Harford sheriff’s office, said it had not been tracking the number of calls related to violations of the governor’s order to not gather in groups of more than 10.

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Deputies may also be breaking up gatherings they come across on proactive patrols, which may not show up in the calls for service logs, Hopkins said.

Lt. Will Reiber of the Aberdeen Police Department said the department has responded to one call of noncompliance where a business mistakenly opened under one of Hogan’s earlier orders. That, he said, was a misunderstanding, and the business quickly closed.

Beyond that, the department’s calls for service have plummeted. Aberdeen police are trying to avoid taking punitive action and are encouraging city residents to act sensibly.

"For us it does not change the approach,” he said. “We are encouraging everyone to follow the governor’s orders and will be treating any violations on a case-by-case basis.”

Cpl. Ken Terry of the Havre de Grace Police Department said they have had no compliance issues and would only seek charges if offending behavior continued.

Chief of Police Charles Moore Jr. of the Bel Air Police Department said his officers would not be stopping people on the street. The department has received four warnings of noncompliance, he wrote in an email, all of which were corrected with a warning.

“Our enforcement approach remains the same as our enforcement efforts for other orders. We try to gain compliance through cooperation,” he wrote.

Like other agencies, Moore said officers are not seeking out people to charge for violating the order and charges will only be made after examination by the state’s attorney.

“We will warn people for violations first and then charge in worst-case scenarios and then only after consultation with the State’s Attorney’s Office,” he wrote.

Harford coronavirus cases reach 25

Among the 1,660 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the state reported Tuesday by the Maryland Department of Health, 25 of those are in Harford County.

On Friday, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman announced the first coronavirus patient in Harford County — an 86-year-old woman who contracted the virus overseas — has been released from the hospital. But he warned of a sharp increase in cases before things ultimately get better.

“This acceleration is expected as public health officials have warned we are at the beginning of the crisis and the number of reports will surge,” Glassman said in a prepared statement

Because of the virus’ community transmission in the state, Glassman warned that county residents “must act as if everyone has the COVID-19 coronavirus,” and advised people to take steps to prevent possible infection: frequently washing hands, keeping six feet away from other people, avoiding groups and covering coughs or sneezes.

Most recover from the viral infection without incident, but people with compromised immune systems and the elderly are at greater risk for serious infections, he said.

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“Our goal as a community is to slow the spread and keep vulnerable people safe. This will also help our healthcare system handle the serious cases without being overwhelmed,” Glassman said in the statement.

Glassman also said that the state has expanded guideline on who can be tested for the virus. Testing must still be ordered by physicians, but the increased access to tests is another reason officials expected the number of cases to shoot up.

“This week the state broadened guidelines for who can be tested beyond those with previously identified risk factors. This is another reason we can expect spikes in the number of tests and reported cases. Remember that if you feel sick, testing still must be ordered by your physician,” Glassman said.

In a tweet, the Harford County Health Department outlined who should be tested, stating that mildly ill people should not get tested. The tests are reserved for people who are showing symptoms and high-risk patients, hospitalized or healthcare personnel.

County agencies remain open, but public access to government buildings is “severely limited,” Director of Governmental and Community Relations Cindy Mumby said.

In-person visits are discouraged, and citizens should use the county’s suite of online tools and a drop-box to submit applications and information to county government.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday it would temporarily restrict access to its lobbies in view of the public health risk the virus poses.

Still, county government is open, Mumby said. County parks remain open, too, though Glassman cautioned people to practice social distancing outdoors.

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