Police, health department focus on education, compliance over tickets to stop large groups amid pandemic
photo by: Contributed Photo
Lawrence police said Wednesday that they haven’t issued any citations for violations of local health orders, a power they were given under a new City ordinance passed in September.
The Lawrence Police Department received the authority to ticket those violating health orders after images of large local house parties with numerous unmasked attendants reached national media outlets — and after community concern that nothing was being done about such large gatherings.
This past weekend, there was similar concern over crowds gathered outside local college bars Jayhawk Cafe and Bullwinkles Bar.
photo by: Contributed Photo
George Diepenbrock, spokesperson for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said the department received complaints over the weekend about compliance to the mass gathering limit and mask requirement, and that they triggered inspections by the staff. Douglas County has had a mass gathering limit of 15 people since Friday, Nov. 13. Lawrence Police Department spokesperson Patrick Compton said that though no citations were issued by police last weekend, they and the local health department were able to collaborate and respond to the potential health order violations.
“We have been exchanging information with Lawrence-Douglas Public Health and contacting them when we encounter a business that appears to be in violation of the health order, and we will continue to do that,” Compton said in an email to the Journal-World. “Also, in order to maintain consistent enforcement, we will approach the responsible party at the business and give them the opportunity to comply with the health order.”
Should the business or individual refuse to comply, the police would issue a notice to appear for violation of the city ordinance, Compton said.
When asked why the Lawrence Police Department is continuing to contact the health department instead of just issuing a ticket under the ordinance, Compton again said that the two agencies are working together.
“Under these unusual pandemic-related circumstances, we have found that working closely with LDCPH improves the effectiveness of addressing and documenting complaints for both agencies,” he wrote. “Compliance is the preferred outcome and, by working together, messaging is more consistent regarding ever-changing health and safety guidelines as well as information as to what may result if local health orders are not followed.”
Last weekend’s activities came in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 cases in the community and during a time of widespread concern for hospital availability in the state. On Tuesday, Lawrence’s local hospital said it expected its COVID-19 inpatient count would increase by 500% in the next two weeks.
Compton said that to his knowledge, the police department had not issued any citations thus far, and suggested contacting the municipal court for confirmation. The spokesperson for the municipal court did not respond to the Journal-World’s inquiry.
Lawrence City Commissioner Courtney Shipley supported the September city ordinance and said she was made aware of the crowds from last weekend over social media. Through communication with the city manager and health department this week, Shipley said she learned that the police department and health department worked together and that the crowds were dispersed.
“They are evidently communicating in what is a reasonable amount of time,” Shipley said of the two departments.
Diepenbrock said that The Bull was given its first warning last weekend. If the health department finds repeated instances of non-compliance, it could pursue an order to close the business. As for The Hawk, Diepenbrock said the crowd dispersed before the health department staff arrived, meaning that establishment was not given the same warning. But the health department spokesperson did say they have been in communication with The Hawk.
“We have been in dialogue with ownership of The Hawk and other establishments to help advise them on compliance with the health order, including how to manage behavior in lines entering the business regarding mask wearing and maintaining social distancing,” he wrote in an email to the Journal-World.
Management at The Hawk and The Bull did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Journal-World.
When asked about the police department’s lack of issuing citations, Shipley said she doesn’t care whether or not people get a ticket for violating the local health order, she just wants them to “go home and stay safe and not spread it through the community.”
“It’s not the money I’m after. It’s not the punishment I’m after. It’s just getting people to understand they need to keep a safe distance and wear their masks,” she said.