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Social distancing crackdown coming in Michigan as coronavirus deaths mount

Detroit park

Three weeks after the coronavirus came to Michigan, officials are increasingly frustrated by those who ignore social distancing rules and stepping up enforcement of violators.

In Lansing, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is under pressure to close in-store lottery sales because of fears of long lines. In Flint, worries about late-night crowds led to a citywide curfew. And in Detroit, the city has dismantled basketball hoops and increased patrols around parks.

Sounding tired, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan began his daily press conference on Friday with a grim statistic and a warning.

"Today, we lost another 19 of our citizens,” Duggan said. “We are going to have to deal far more strictly on enforcing the governor's order on social distancing."

Duggan acknowledged city officials had “significant debate … about closing parks” but settled on increased patrols, plane flyovers and video surveillance to disperse crowds. The city will begin issuing misdemeanor citations punishable by $1,000 fines and six months in jall, he said.

“We’ve got the resources to deal with these violations,” Duggan said Friday, as some police officers return to work after the department was hard hit by the virus

“We don’t want to be fining anybody, but we can’t be having these gatherings, we can’t be having folks on the street.”

Duggan announced the crackdown the day after Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon issued an order allowing police to fine violators up to $1,000 or implement criminal penalties for breaking social distancing rules. 

The penalties reflect anxiety that residents aren’t following executive orders to minimize gatherings and slow the spread of COVID-19, which has sickened 12,744 statewide and killed 479 as of Friday afternoon. Cases have nearly tripled in the last week, as the virus spreads from southeast Michigan.

About 25 percent of cases and deaths have been in Detroit. 

"I don't know if we can bend the curve in Detroit,” Duggan admitted Friday, warning residents that more restrictions could soon be coming.

“They failed to do it in New York and the loss of life is almost unimaginable."

Until now, police statewide have largely said they will warn violators, and state officials are leaving prosecution decisions to local authorities, said Michigan Attorney General spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney. 

In practice, charges may be challenging to implement: Courts statewide are closed to non-emergency cases and police may be hesitant to detain violators who can’t pay fees for safety reasons. 

But “the courts are going to open someday,” Duggan said. “So we are going to deal with this in reasonable ways.”

Elsewhere, Flint became the first city in the state Thursday to institute a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus, with violations punishable by a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.

Statewide, the Attorney General’s office is advising local law enforcement to issue warnings to businesses that don’t enforce social distancing and non-essential stores that remain open despite Whitmer’s orders.

The state has issued a handful of cease-and-desist letters to non-essential businesses, and has yet to take any disciplinary action, said Rossman-McKinney.

“It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but at this point we’ve found that folks are pretty reasonable,” Rossman-McKinney said.

As of last week, officials with the Department of Natural Resources also said they were monitoring crowds at parks. 

The agency has closed Tippy Dam Recreation Area, a popular steelhead fishing spot on the Manistee River, and agency officials warned more closures are coming if visitors don’t keep their distance.

Officials at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have closed some facilities and discouraged out-of-towners from traveling long distances to visit the lakeshore, but park superintendent Scott Tucker said rangers are not enforcing the social distancing order on an individual basis.

"That's a losing battle," Tucker said, noting that it can be difficult for park rangers to tell by sight whether visitors are out hiking with members of their household (which is allowed under Whitmer's orders) or mingling in violation of the order. 

"Rangers are not out there policing with a tape measure. If folks are in the park, we're assuming they're there for the right reasons."

— Bridge reporter Louis Aguilar contributed to this article


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