LP police: Mask enforcement not really possible
LAKE PLACID — In the weeks since the North Country region entered its last phase of reopening, hordes of visitors have flocked to downtown Lake Placid. Not all of them have been wearing masks while out in the region’s busiest business district, an issue that local government officials describe as one to be remedied through education rather than enforcement.
“This is not a prosecution-type issue,” Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall said July 21. “It’s a civic issue, and education is the best thing we can do.”
There are some instances in which criminal charges can be levied, but it would likely have to rise to the level of willfully violating the state’s health law, disorderly conduct, criminal nuisance or obstruction of governmental administration, according to state guidance on enforcement of the governor’s New York State on PAUSE order.
On nice-weather days, clusters of people can be seen sunbathing on the beach and other grassy areas bordering Mirror Lake. Main Street has been abuzz with people, including tourists from around the state and across the country. Trails in North Elba, Keene, Wilmington and Saranac Lake are seeing a steady stream of hikers, and this region’s forest rangers have been busy with search-and-rescue calls.
The visitors have been met with relief by many. Some businesses just recently got the go-ahead to reopen, after months of being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But for others, the wave of tourism has caused trepidation, fear or anger — and calls for elected officials to do more to ensure public health recommendations are adhered to.
“We’re very concerned,” North Elba town Supervisor Jay Rand said. Like Randall, he also highlighted efforts to educate the public as how the local government can respond.
Wearing masks in public is required in New York, in situations where social distancing isn’t possible, for everyone over the age of 2 who is able to medically tolerate it.
But enforcing the state mandate — by asking a local police officer to respond and levy a charge, for example — isn’t so simple.
“As far as enforcement, all the direction we’ve received from the county, so far to date, doesn’t allow the police department to enforce the mandates on a criminal level,” said Assistant Police Chief Chuck Dobson.
The state Department of Health issued an amendment to previously adopted public health regulations on July 9 saying those who violate the order are “subject to a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation.”
Businesses who violate the regulations, and those who host non-essential gatherings, could also be subject to fines.
But those are civil fines from the health department, not criminal charges.
Though businesses are allowed to bar customers from entering without a mask, local officials believe there’s less they can legally do to enforce public health guidelines outside.
Local governments have recently attempted to adopt their own mask mandates, on top of the state’s mandate. The Franklin County Legislature adopted a mask mandate in May, but it was later put on hold after it failed to receive approval from the state Department of Health, according to the Malone Telegram. The mandate mirrored one that was previously approved in Oneida County, with some alterations.
“There’s been some question about why the mayor doesn’t just pass a law,” Randall said.
The village can’t adopt a local mandate that would “supersede the laws of the state,” he added.
North Elba town Attorney Ron Briggs said the state’s mask mandate “has no teeth,” and making those not complying aware of the state mandate is all that can be done locally.
“You politely remind them; that’s all you can do,” Briggs said last Tuesday. “And most people respond to that.”
The village of Lake Placid, and its Main Street business district, has been a popular tourist destination in this region for generations. But the infrastructure, primarily the width of its red-paver sidewalk, makes it difficult to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“One of the problems with Main Street is a lot of times people walking down are apart more than 6 feet, but all of a sudden they’ll be close together,” Rand said.
Main Street’s sidewalks aren’t all 6 feet in width, according to Randall.
“They may not be aware that social distancing is not always possible,” he said of those who don’t wear a mask on Main Street. “We need to take some stronger steps.”
The town has fielded “a lot of complaints” about people not wearing masks on its side of Mirror Lake, along Mirror Lake Drive and in the water, according to Rand. Responding to those complaints can be complicated.
“It’s a very difficult situation, because if you’re from the same family or household, which a lot of times people are, they’re not required,” he said. “It’s not an exact science but we are doing, I think, everything possible.”
Rand added that he believes the beach is “very well-controlled.”
“I had one complaint that people who were on rafts had no masks on. It gets a little … obviously, you can’t have masks on in the water,” he said.
With help from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, local officials have recently supplemented existing “Politely Adirondack” signage with more signs on Main Street indicating that masks are required when social distancing isn’t possible.
The Lake Placid Police Department also recently stepped up foot patrols, according to Dobson.
“What we’re trying to do currently is just educate the public as best we can,” he said.
Officers have been handing out informational cards on social distancing and mask use to those who may not be in compliance with the state mandate.
Rand said there have also been discussions with ROOST about possibly setting up a stand where a person can hand out masks and share information.