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May 18, 2020 - 9:01pm

Legislators to explore best way to deal with situations involving 'COVID-iots'

The powers-that-be in Albany have made it clear to municipalities that they are in charge when it comes to reopening the state’s 10 regions.

-- Four phases, with each listing the types of businesses than can reopen – subject to rigid requirements.

-- Progression through the phases dictated by seven metrics tied to the coronavirus.

-- A fully regional approach, with communities prohibited from doing their own thing.

But when it comes to the enforcement of possible violations of quarantine orders, social distancing mandates or the wearing of face coverings, Genesee County leaders say they are being left in the dark.

Speaking during today’s Public Service Committee videoconferencing meeting, Legislator Andrew Young asked pointed questions about how to handle potentially confrontational situations as people lose patience with an economic shutdown that is into its ninth week.

“Let’s say it got down to the police force,” Young said. “Exclude code enforcement and zoning for a minute. Let’s assume that it’s someone’s home or something. That would have to be a police officer. What’s the threat like? What’s the crime? Is it an executive order and what’s the consequence? That’s a really gray area.”

County Manager Jay Gsell quickly responded, “Absolutely.”

Gsell, providing an update on the Finger Lakes Region “control room," reported that law enforcement and the county Health Department have dealt with issues, such as gatherings, that “might impose potential risk in regard to positive contact tracing and what the state will then look at in regard to the (metrics) dashboard that they have set up.”

He also mentioned that although the county has little input in the reopening process, it bears the burden of enforcement against acts of defiance.

“Whether it be the health department, zoning, code enforcement, basically, the bottom line, is really more and more likely to come to some part of law enforcement,” Gsell said, adding that Monroe County officials said that the State Police should be involved.

“… they would like the state patrol to be really part of this – really the bolstering of and the backup even to our own law enforcement -- if the kind and considerate request for people to stop doing something that seems to be violating or is violating the guidances, that state patrol would be there to help,” he said. “We don’t understand that that’s necessarily going to happen, but that’s what we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis with the way this entire process is rolling out, starting with Phase One.”

Gsell said the extent to which Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders come with a “certain degree of legal enforceability” is superseded by the county’s right to know what it can and can’t do in touchy situations.

Young said the county needs to look to the Sheriff’s Office for answers.

“It’s really about our sheriff (William Sheron Jr.),” Young said, calling for a discussion with the full legislature on this issue. “Does he feel he’s comfortable with this? Is he willing to do this? Does he want to? Do we want him to is another question, right?”

Gsell explained that the state response to handling civil or criminal disobedience has been sketchy.

“The state is advising us to not engage in, I guess we’ll call it the ‘heaviest hand’ but recognize, and haven’t really dealt with the idea, that there’s going to be some people,” he said. “And we’ve already run into them in a couple cases, when they are approached and asked by either health department or even law enforcement people, and the response is not what I would call positive or compliant, and then the question is, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ and to what extent is this going to become … a potential incident.”

County Attorney Kevin Earl brought up a real incident – a recent news report that police officers in New York City wrestled a woman to the ground in front of her kids when she didn’t have her mask on properly. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s response was that he wasn’t prepared to press charges over masks at this point.

“The (NYS) Sheriffs' Association attorneys wrote a very long memo, saying basically kind of the same thing,” Earl said. “Possibly, if they didn’t disperse or something of that nature, could be disorderly conduct or failing to obey a lawful order of the sheriffs, but even the Sheriffs' Association, when they talked about this last week, is not really gung-ho on that course of action.”

Earl also said that lawyers noted that the governor has pointed to a section of the public health law that could be used, but “again, not many people are keen on that.”

He said bail reform means that people receive a ticket and don’t have to disperse.

While that could lead to escalation, Earl said that a violation of quarantine orders carries more weight.

“Basically, between (District Attorney) Larry (Friedman) and the sheriff and I, we came to the opinion that the best way to do it was to get an order from Judge (Charles) Zambito, with the order saying if they did not do this, they could be arrested and taken to that facility in Monroe County that opened up for that purpose and we, of course, got an inter-municipal agreement," he said. "So, Larry was pretty much on the side of civil action in that regard."

Earl encouraged all parties involved to seek “voluntary compliance,” adding “I don’t think we want an incident of where our sheriff’s (deputy) is taking down a lady because she didn’t have her mask or face covering.” He finished by saying he would try to provide more direction for the legislature.

Committee Chair Marianne Clattenburg proposed further debate while expressing confidence that the public “will make an effort to do the right thing and to remember that these precautions are not about taking away your civil liberties but they’re about the health and safety of the most vulnerable among us.”

Gsell said the emphasis must be on positive messaging.

Alluding to the “control room” meeting, he said, “that the community has to keep rallying around the idea (that) we have to get past this together and not as a bunch of individuals or as (Health Director) Paul (Pettit) would call them, the ‘COVID-iots’ running around deciding that today is May 18th and all bets are off.”

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