Ask ELi: Could You Be Fined a Thousand Dollars for Going Out?

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Weekend walkers on the Northern Tier Trail

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Walkers on the Northern Tier Trail this weekend included people out for grocery runs.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon issued an emergency order on April 2, giving statewide law enforcement the ability to fine those violating social distancing and stay-at-home measures up to one thousand dollars.

According to Gordon, this order came down “to ensure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws.” This move does not change Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s earlier order, but it adds more stringent penalties for those who violate it.

So what should East Lansing residents expect this month? Can they continue exercising outside and going to the store as needed? What could earn them a thousand-dollar fine?

ELi reached out to City leaders and representatives to find out.

Can I still go outside?

The resounding chorus from city officials was, yes, please continue to exercise outdoors while maintaining six feet of distance from people who are not part of your household.

East Lansing Communications Coordinator Mikell Frey explained that the city is following the lead of state-level officials on this. Going for walks or bike rides would only be prohibited in East Lansing if Governor Gretchen Whitmer adjusted the specifics of her stay-at-home order.

Frey also pointed out that East Lansing residents leaving their homes should review the new CDC guidelines that encourage people to wear cloth face masks in public to slow the community transmission of COVID-19.

Will ELPD fine individuals for violating social distancing and stay-at-home measures?

According to Interim Chief Steve Gonzalez, ELPD is acting on complaints that social distancing norms are being violated.

Responding to questions, Gonzalez told ELi that, “Officers first take an educational and warning approach in handling these calls. This has been largely successful and people have kindly responded.”

ELPD has not have to take action against any individuals for violations while walking around in public. Mayor Ruth Beier told ELi that groups that may appear to be violating social distancing norms often are from the same household, so they are not required to remain six feet apart.

Some citizens have been reporting student partying. Said Gonzalez, “We have responded to some party/noise complaints where the gathering was in violation of the executive order.”

Before the MDHHS order came down allowing a big fine in conjunction with enforcement, ELPD has been relying on existing city ordinances that empower East Lansing’s police to regulate noise and gatherings.

What about businesses?

Both Gonzalez and Beier stated that East Lansing had almost no issue with non-essential businesses remaining open after Whitmer called for their closure. ELPD has responded to some complaints of businesses remaining open, but none resulted in punitive action.

Beier stated that East Lansing is currently not checking on all local businesses to see if they are following Ingham County Health Department’s order. Gonzalez did say, however, should ELPD “receive a complaint that a private business is not following the public health order we may document and refer to the proper authorities for enforcement.”

Should a non-essential business be found in operation, Gonzalez explained that, “Under guidance from the Attorney General’s Office and Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, we may generate a police report for such a violation and forward to the prosecutor for review for issuance of a violation.”

As for social distancing in stores, Beier wants to remind people that they need to police themselves. Patrons should be considerate of the emergency order to protect themselves and the people working.

Why did the City of East Lansing extend its state of emergency? What should I expect in April?

Last Friday, Mayor Beier extended the local state of emergency through April 30. Beier, an economist by profession, explained that science informed her decision. Simply put, social distancing needs a longer time span than provided in the previous declaration to save lives.

Although East Lansing and the surrounding area has so far not been hit has hard as Southeastern Michigan, Ingham County’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 grew to 172 with two confirmed deaths as of yesterday, April 5. Clinton County (which includes a small part of East Lansing) has had 55 cases and one confirmed death.

Beier hopes that the extension of the state of emergency in East Lansing will encourage residents to make plans for staying home for a while longer. When asked what have been the major challenges of operating under a state of emergency, she said that it was difficult to cancel events, such as the Art Festival, that residents look forward to all year.

Frey added that extending the state of emergency was implemented to help “our community to recognize the seriousness of the situation and the importance of staying informed and following the guidance and orders that have been put into place at the local, state and federal level.”

ELi has covered the state of emergency’s expansion, outlining specific changes and closures, but Frey elaborated on the rationale behind the decisions, particularly keeping the Hannah Center closed for an additional month and not opening the East Lansing Family Aquatic Center for the summer: both have the potential to attract larger crowds.

Financial concerns also weighed in on the decisions. The City of East Lansing was reluctant to begin hiring life guards and staff for the Aquatic Center when it could not guarantee training or its opening.

The Hannah Center and other sports complexes also allow outside groups to rent their facilities. According to Frey, the City “did not want to accommodate those rentals at this time knowing that they may need to be canceled later down the road.”

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed

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