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As stay-at-home order is extended, D.C. police say enforcing social distancing can be a struggle

Police in March blocked roads adjoining or leading to the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms to keep crowds from gathering in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

One Friday this month, District authorities saw people congregating while waiting for takeout orders at a Mexican restaurant on the Wharf. Two days later, a group of people outside an apartment building in Brightwood Park refused to disperse.

D.C. police officers intervened in both instances — two examples in the ongoing struggle to enforce social distancing restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

At the Wharf, police said they told the restaurant manager he was “in violation of the mayor’s social distancing order” and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulatory Administration said it issued a verbal warning. In Brightwood Park, police gave several people citations.

The city has taken a soft approach to dealing with social distancing scofflaws, aiming to issue citations or make arrests only as a last resort.

“The goal is to obtain voluntary compliance,” a police spokeswoman said.

That isn’t always proving easy.

At a recent community meeting for residents living in Shaw and Mount Vernon Square, among other areas, officers said there have been moments when they were frustrated with violators and with their own inability to coax people into compliance.

One sergeant said warnings delivered over loudspeakers from police cruisers to a group that regularly gathers on O Street between Seventh and Eighth streets in Northwest Washington “are not working,” forcing officers to get out of their cars and “essentially talk common sense to them.”

D.C. police said that since March 15, officers have visited businesses 27 times to investigate reported violations of orders by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) pertaining to gatherings and staying at home. They include restaurants allowing inside dining, a club packed with patrons listening to a live band and employees having a meeting inside a store.

After police report on what they find, two city regulatory agencies decide how to proceed.

The city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulatory Administration, which licenses establishments that sell alcohol, said it has issued written or verbal warnings to 15 of those businesses.

The District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) has visited more than 500 businesses to make sure the orders were being followed. The agency said it shut down 7 businesses and issued 63 verbal warnings.

The first and thus far only citation issued to citizens involved the group in Brightwood Park. Police said on May 3, some in a group of more than 10 refused to disperse from the 600 block of Longfellow Street NW. They said some of those people were cited after “multiple warnings.”

Policing the beat while keeping a distance

Peter Tabor, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from the area around Longfellow Street, said there often is a group hanging out along a route to a grocery store, and others have complained that that makes it difficult to socially distance.

Bowser this week extended the stay-at-home restrictions through June 8. More difficulties could develop as the shutdown continues, the days grow warmer and people grow increasingly frustrated with being cooped up. People are allowed outside for essential chores such as shopping for food and medicine and for exercise. Walking through a park is allowed. Lingering is discouraged.

Officials across the country are grappling with similar struggles, trying to enforce orders that appear to be anathema to community policing, and worried about ruining relationships built up over years.

“This virus has not left the District,” Bowser said at a recent news conference, after crowds went to the Mall to watch a military flyover for a tribute to hospital workers. “We have to be mindful that we can only contain this virus if we don’t spread it to one another.”

The mayor noted that people could have seen the flyover from their own neighborhoods. “We want people to get fresh air and exercise, and we want them to do it close to home,” Bowser said.

Police Chief Peter Newsham said most residents and businesses have complied with the stay-at-home orders and the restrictions are not easy for residents or police.

“When you are enforcing orders that may make people uncomfortable, because it impacts their normal way of life, it can develop a little bit of friction between the police and the community,” Newsham said. “We are using all the trust and the relationships we’ve built to persuade people to obey the order. Generally across the city, I have been impressed with the way the community has responded.”

Authorities in the District have shut down cherry blossom viewings, farmers markets and the Wharf’s fish market in Southwest Waterfront. Many markets have since reopened with permits that require strict social distancing requirements. And businesses that are open continue to try to navigate the rules.

The call to Mi Vida, the Mexican restaurant on the Wharf, came the afternoon of May 1. A police sergeant and an investigator for DCRA responded to a complaint for “several subjects congregating” outside.

According to a police report, the investigators saw people drinking what appeared to be alcoholic drinks out of plastic cups. The manager told police people were waiting for food orders and that he had warned them not to drink.

Police said they talked to the manager. The head of the company that owns the restaurant declined to comment.

Social distancing enforcement ramps up amid concerns of targeting minorities

The next day, police were back at the Wharf, this time for people awaiting carryout food at the Union Pie kiosk. Police said in a report the restaurant was “taking walk-up orders,” causing a crowd consisting of more than 10 people.

The restaurant's owner did not respond to interview requests. No citation or warning was issued.

At the Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting for residents in and around Shaw and Mount Vernon Square, the chairwoman, Rachelle Nigro, found much time taken up in a discussion of social distancing protocol.

“I think the police are doing the best they can do,” said Nigro, whose ANC straddles areas that include both the 1st and 3rd police districts. “I support the police and their efforts. I don’t think it has been easy.”

D.C. police Capt. Han Kim with the 3rd District told the group “we’re frustrated with people still going out and against the order,” noting a particular trouble spot around Eighth and O streets near the Kennedy Recreation Center in Shaw. He said 50 young men and women have gathered there nightly and don’t want to move.

But Kim said arrests are not easily considered. “No one wants that because people aren’t staying home or social distancing,” he said.

“We got a majority to disperse after a while,” Sgt. David Terestre said about the group on O Street. He told residents he is trying to find other ways, short of confrontations, to get people to break up the groups. “I’m up for trying something out of the box, whatever it may be,” he said.

Police say making arrests is counterproductive because it forces officers and defendants into close contact and risks filling jail cells. Violations of the order can mean up to 90 days in jail, and the citations carry fines of up to $5,000.

D.C. police Cmdr. Morgan Kane, who runs the 1st District that includes Capitol Hill and the Waterfront, told residents at the same meeting to listen to the medical professionals.

She took affront when one man suggested, “When it’s warm, we go out.”

“This is a crisis,” Kane answered. “We have to take some responsibility and police ourselves. We have to be accountable to ourselves, to our families and to the first responders, to get this virus under control. I encourage you, beg you, not to come out.”

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