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Police plan to softly enforce closing order

March 23, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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State and local police say they plan to take a velvet glove approach — not an iron-fisted one — in response to an unprecedented move by Gov. Tom Wolf to shut down certain businesses in the name of public safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We want voluntary compliance, not confrontation,” said Sgt. Chuck Mascellino, spokesman for Cranberry Township police.

All police departments are now assisting state officials in enforcing the order to close physical locations of what Wolf's directive deems “non life-sustaining businesses.” The order and enforcement went into effect at 8 a.m. Monday.

“We're not going to take the hammer to businesses,” said Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski. “We want to educate the public and we want to have businesses comply with the law.”

Butler Township Police Chief John Hays acknowledged that making sure otherwise law-abiding businesses remain closed is unchartered territory for police.

“None of us in our lifetimes,” he said, “have faced things like this. But we'll do our job.”

Wolf, in his order Thursday, mandated that certain businesses he shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The governor amended the order Friday to expand the number of businesses that could remain open.

Stores, shops and plants on the state's list of non-essential businesses that fail to comply face possible penalties, including citations, fines or license suspensions.

But warnings — not citations — appear to be what could be in the immediate future for stores and other businesses found in violation of the order.

“It's education over enforcement,” Tarkowski said. “We're not in the business of jamming people up in the criminal justice system because they misunderstood the order.”

In Cranberry Township, which has more businesses than any other municipality in Butler County, police will wait for someone to report a possible violation, said Mascellino.

If the report is deemed legitimate, police will draft a letter advising that business owner to cease operations. It will also refer the owner to the governor's website and directive.

The plan is for an officer to hand deliver the letter to the owner or manager of the business, Mascellino said. After that, however, the enforcement procedure is not so clear.

Once the letter is delivered, he said, police will take a “day-to-day approach and “wait to see how it plays out.”

Non-compliant Butler Township businesses will essentially be given two warnings. After that, citations will be issued.

Butler Township Police Chief John Hays said his department's policy follows the guidance from the governor's office.

“We're not going to go knocking door to door to see if a business is open that shouldn't be,” he said. “But if it's reported, we'll investigate it.”

Officers will also be keeping their eyes open for violators while on their daily patrols.

Any business suspected of violating the governor's order will trigger a police check to determine if it meets the criteria as a “non-life sustaining business,” Hays said.

If it does, a warning will be given to the business owner or manager. The business, Hays noted, will be advised that “future failure to comply may result in initiation of formal action.”

Should the business remain in violation after the initial warning, police will make a second one. This time, Hays said, the police message would be that future failure “will result in enforcement action.”

Continued non-compliance will result in the offending business receiving the appropriate statutory citation. That is the same enforcement action afforded to all police departments.

Under the state's Administrative Code of 1929, a business could face a fine of between $10 and $50 for violating any order or regulation of the Department of Health.

A business also could be cited for violating Pennsylvanian's Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. That citation carries a fine of between $25 and $300.

For state police, enforcing the governor's order would be “folded into the day-to-day patrol work,” Tarkowski said, like looking for traffic violators, drunken drivers and investigating serious crimes.

“We're not going to be peeking into windows of businesses,” he said.

State police, he added, will also rely on the public to report violators. However, he noted, reporting non-complaint businesses is not a 911 matter.

Instead, he urged the public to call the non-emergency telephone numbers of the appropriate police department.

Tarkowski also said troopers would have the discretion on how to handle individual cases, but he emphasized the police intent is not to write numerous citations as part of enforcing Wolf's order.

“We're all in this together,” Tarkowski said, “and that's why it's more about education and bringing people into voluntary compliance.”

Citizens and business owners who have questions on what is or is not a life-sustaining business, can email the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development at: ra-dcedcs@pa.gov.

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