Chapel Hill will have increased police patrols downtown and in student neighborhoods after receiving reports of people disregarding social distancing policies implemented due to COVID-19.
Local officials met last week to discuss enforcement of state and county safer-at-home recommendations that prohibit outdoor gatherings of more than 25 individuals and indoor gatherings of more than 10 individuals.
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said law enforcement, town managers and attorneys met to determine what actions local officials needed to take to prevent noncompliance in the community.
“We have been educating, and trying to help encourage people for better behavior, but if there is egregious behavior, we will have to consider citing people for egregious behavior," she said.
Hemminger and Chris Blue, Chapel Hill's police chief and executive director for community safety, both said education is still the primary approach to encouraging voluntary compliance, but enforcement is now being considered.
Violations of state or local declarations of emergency are Class 2 misdemeanors and are punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and up to 60 days in jail for repeat violators, according to the statement released by the Town. Charges will continue to be reserved for repeat violators and glaring violations of the crowd limitations, the statement said.
“If you have a large cluster of students together in a small space without masks — where it’s obvious to anyone that’s looking that that number is well beyond 25 — and that they are just not respecting the governor’s orders nor the community’s faith in them, then I think that’s when you’re getting into egregious territory,” said Alicia Stemper, the director of public information and special services for Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
These changes come after a video was circulated on Twitter last week of a large group, which exceeded the limitations set in Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order, of students leaving a house without wearing face coverings. However, Blue said this video was not the only cause of concern.
“Specifically, that meeting was in response to us seeing a number of activities that concerned us, not just the one captured on that video,” Blue said. He said the Town received a number of 911 calls, emails and calls to the health department about events that were believed to be in violation of the order.
Hemminger said the community was stunned to see such a blatant display, and that since students have signed pledges, they should understand what officials have asked them to do.
“We want to use this to help highlight that it’s just not OK,” Hemminger said. “You can affect other people when you are asymptomatic. We know that mask wearing reduces it. We know that not having large crowds reduces the chances of the virus spreading.”
Blue said the goal is not to charge people, but to keep the community safe. He said there was concern that people were behaving in a way that delayed the town’s ability to get back to normal.
“I know everybody is excited to be back in town, wanting to see friends and wanting to pursue some sense of normal,” Blue said. “We’re not there yet. And so the more we stick to orders, and to all of the elements into trying to stay safe, the more people we can get back to normal.”
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