In the days since state officials called for residents to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ocean City police have gotten calls after kids were seen playing basketball on closed courts and people gathered in garages, beaches or on the Boardwalk.
There have even been photos posted to social media of groups “celebrating quarantining,” police Chief John J. Prettyman said.
“In this current time, these behaviors are irresponsible and dangerous,” he said. “The bottom line is to stay away from everyone as much as you can. Period.”
Gov. Phil Murphy on Saturday signed an executive order mandating sweeping restrictions on gatherings and businesses, telling residents to “quite simply, stay at home.” While residents are allowed to leave their homes for groceries, trips to the pharmacy, for outdoor exercise and other essential activities, Murphy urged people to maintain a safe distance between themselves and others.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal reiterated the point late Wednesday, citing three examples where police charged people for holding prohibited gatherings, including a house party Saturday in Penns Grove, Salem County, and two large gatherings Tuesday in Lakewood, one of which was a wedding reception.
“Our first responders should not be expending their limited PPE and putting themselves at risk by breaking up large gatherings,” Grewal said in a news release. “Our message is clear: Stay home!”
The penalty for those who disregard the order is a disorderly persons charge, which carries up to six months in jail, a maximum $1,000 fine, or both.
For the most part, South Jersey law enforcement officials said residents are heeding the warning and staying home. And residents Ocean City officers have been in contact with have been cooperative when they’re reminded of recommendations from Murphy and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prettyman said.
Ocean City on Wednesday closed its beaches and Boardwalk to the public.
Wildwood police Chief Robert N. Regalbuto said residents are in compliance and there have been no issues. Similarly, Galloway Township police Lt. Gary Jones said that for the most part, people are complying and they “haven’t seen any egregious violations.”
Pleasantville Police Chief Sean Riggin said he’s seen “great compliance” with Murphy’s order.
“Our community knows how serious this pandemic is and how much worse it could be if we aren’t all doing our best to flatten the curve,” Riggin said.
Atlantic City police Sgt. Kevin Fair said the department has seen “tremendous compliance” from residents. And while they are seeing hot spots in the city’s homeless population, police are working diligently with social service partners to assist them.
“We know that families need groceries, everyone needs exercise and, most importantly, we need the community to check in on our senior citizens, who are the most vulnerable to this virus,” he said, adding the criminal charge for violating the order is an absolute last resort.
“Hopefully, at the end of this, when we can all return to our normal lives, we can say that no City of Atlantic City resident had to be charged with this offense and everyone made it through safely,” he said.
Police departments in each county must get approval from their respective prosecutor’s office to charge someone who is in violation of the order. Officials at prosecutor’s offices in Atlantic and Cumberland counties said no charges have been filed yet as a result of the order. The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office did not return a request for comment.
“Charging people with a disorderly persons offense is our absolute last option,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said Saturday in a news release. “We want people to understand the urgency of the present situation that requires them to stay at home if we as a society are going to effectively reduce the rate that COVID-19 is being transmitted.”
Officers in Ocean City are regularly patrolling the city’s Boardwalk, playgrounds, recreation fields, neighborhoods and local businesses to ensure compliance, Prettyman said. And officials are using the city’s public address system to remind residents of the importance of social distancing.
“The only way to prevent this virus from spreading like wildfire is to limit personal and group contact. … That is the message we need to send to our residents and visitors,” Prettyman said. “As we now see confirmed cases in Cape May and Atlantic counties, people hopefully are beginning to see the evidence they need to comply.”