Local cops favor warnings in virus rule enforcement

Local police say they are using more warnings than tickets for businesses that violate coronavirus pandemic rules.

Restaurant and bar reopenings in Phase 3 of the North Country’s coronavirus plan come with a lot of regulations for businesses and customers to follow, to limit the spread of the virus as the economy starts back up. These include reducing maximum occupancy of establishments by 50%, social distancing — 6 feet between tables — and wearing masks. Local police departments are charged with upholding these rules.

All three of the Tri-Lakes’ village police departments said their enforcement is complaint-driven. Officers are encouraged to remind people of the public health rules and to respond to reported complaints more than to seek out violations.

“Nobody’s going to get an award for writing the first business up for being out of compliance,” Saranac Lake Police Department Chief James Joyce said. He said his officers will not go around to check in on certificates of occupancy.

He said his department has received no complaints and issued no warrants in past two weeks, adding that the “regular police work” complaints and crimes have risen with the warm weather, but COVID-19-related complaints have dropped.

Lake Placid village police Sgt. Chuck Dobson said his department’s officers are carrying cards from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism with coronavirus reminders that they hand out to people on the streets. He also said the department is collaborating with the local code enforcement office, and that things such as occupancy are more of a code issue than a penal one.

Tupper Lake police Chief Eric Proulx said people can either call the department directly with complaints or report them to the state hotline. Tupper Lake is the only local village that has passed ordinances of its own echoing the governor’s orders.

Proulx said officers have issued a few warnings, but no fines or tickets so far.

“The verbal warnings are what we believe to be the appropriate way to handle it initially,” he said. “Those warnings seem to bring people into compliance.”

He said these warnings were initially about customers or employees being inside businesses that were supposed to be closed, or retail employees who were not wearing masks.

Joyce and Dobson said their departments are also issuing verbal warnings first.

“It’s kind of like the open container law during Winter Carnival,” Joyce said of Saranac Lake’s big February festival. “We issue a lot of warnings, you almost never write a ticket for it. You’re just trying to get compliance.”

The North Country and New York state’s COVID-19 numbers have been going down. Joyce said business owners know that if case numbers rise again, it could prompt another shutdown, so they are willing to follow the public health rules that allow them to stay open.