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Policing during a pandemic: Officers educate, regulate shelter-in-place order

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Leaving home isolation for exercise alone, like this woman walking her pug dogs on State Street Friday afternoon, or with those one lives with, is OK, but anyone who does go outdoors should remain at least 6 feet away from everyone else, according to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide coronavirus order. The Los Altos Police Department is working to ensure compliance.

According to the Los Altos Police Department’s crime log in the days following the shelter-in-place order, officers are responding to calls to clarify the restrictions and to warn residents who violate the order they could be charged with a misdemeanor. 

From the evening after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an immediate statewide shelter-in-place (March 20) to Tuesday night (March 24), five residents requested that officers visit a home or business to inform children and/or adults about the mandate to stay home. There were three reports of people congregating in a public place: a group of children playing soccer in Grant Park Friday afternoon (March 20), a group of people playing baseball at Rosita Park Sunday afternoon (March 22) and customers gathered outside a business on the 4500 block of El Camino Real Sunday evening (March 22).

In an additional incident that did not appear on the police log, an officer told a pair playing tennis at Los Altos High School Friday morning to go home.

“He said we were ‘violating the law’ unless we were from the same household,” a Town Crier reader wrote in an email. “We explained that we made certain to arrive at the courts separately and we kept more than 6 feet apart at all times.”

The following day, Los Altos Police Chief Andy Galea said the department was still learning about Newsom’s order, including how it compared with the Bay Area’s six-county shelter-in-place directive issued March 17.

“Not every question has a clear yes or no answer, but we are doing our best to balance the restrictions of the order to stay home and self-isolate with the need to obtain or receive vital services,” Galea said. “Aside from the social distancing aspect, people need to remember that the virus can survive on surfaces for an extended period of time. Sharing any type of equipment (tennis balls/basketballs/soccer balls) clearly creates a risk of spreading the disease and violates the intent of the order to self-isolate.”

Observed trends

Galea told the Los Altos City Council at its virtual meeting Tuesday that he is seeing in Los Altos what is likely representative of other communities: a generally compliant citizenry.

The department’s challenge, according to Galea, is convincing people that sheltering in place means sheltering inside your residence, with few exemptions. People using facilities at parks and schools without understanding the implications of sharing equipment need to be educated by officers, he said. Police have issued no citations to date, City Manager Chris Jordan shared with the council.

While posts on the Nextdoor social network may tell a different story, Galea said violators of the order, whether purposeful or not, are not confined to one age group. With basketball or football appealing to a younger crowd and tennis appealing to “people a bit older,” no one group has the order nailed, he said. However, Galea added, when law enforcement has informed people of the rules of the order and asked them to comply, most have been more than happy to do so.

Police Capt. Katie Krauss confirmed Galea’s observations Tuesday afternoon.

“We are still focusing our efforts on education, and have found that people are receptive,” she told the Town Crier. “Most of our patrol officers’ time is spent patrolling commercial areas and also the parks/open spaces. We want to remain visible and available for residents.”

Get outside – responsibly

With Santa Clara County’s 375 confirmed cases (as of Wednesday afternoon, March 25) leading the count across all Bay Area counties, officials are determining the optimal ways to flatten the coronavirus curve. Parks and open spaces management and representatives, for example, are defining clear rules for those seeking fresh air.

A New Regional Coalition, an alliance of 49 Bay Area public land managers, Wednesday offered guidelines for safe use of open spaces during the statewide shutdown. Although the ultimate goal is to keep parks open, behaviors that put others at risk of contracting the coronavirus cannot be tolerated.

“We recognize the great need and desire for access to outdoor spaces during a period of sheltering at home,” Annie Burke, executive director of A New Regional Coalition, said in a statement. “At the same time, if people don’t use the spaces safely, then the parks cannot remain open. We hope the public will embrace these guidelines so that we – and the parks we love – remain safe and protected.”

The Peninsula Open Space Trust, Santa Clara County Parks and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority offered the following recommendations.

• Get outdoors alone or with family members you’ve been isolating with. Getting outside is for one’s health, “not for socializing,” the public land managers emphasized.

• Stay a minimum of 6 feet away from people you do not live with, and yield to others at crossings to maintain a safe distance.

• Choose quieter parks and trails. Park agency websites should have recommendations at this time. That means intentionally avoiding crowded trails and parking lots, whether you know ahead of time that the area is typically heavily traveled or not. Walking instead of parking can provide more exercise.

• Try to keep those parks and trails near your home, or at least your neighborhood.

• Do not host social gatherings at a park or open space and do not visit parks that have been closed entirely by appropriate local authorities. Plan for bathrooms at those facilities and many others to be closed.

• Try to keep visits to parks and open spaces short so that others have the opportunity to enjoy the space as well.

• Do not go outdoors or venture into public spaces if you know you or the family members you’ve been sheltering with are sick or could be sick.

• Be extra mindful of your trash. Collection services have been reduced during the pandemic, so do your part to leave no marks.

• Visit nature virtually. Many zoos, aquariums and other animal and nature-based organizations offer live webcams on their websites.

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