Oregon leaders want you to follow new COVID-19 rules. But don’t expect a knock on the door.

Nov 18, 2020
Originally published on November 18, 2020 7:25 am

Just hours before a statewide lockdown and strict limit on social gatherings take effect, neither Oregon Gov. Kate Brown nor the people she put in charge of enforcement could say how authorities will ensure people comply.

Unlike earlier in the pandemic, the governor’s latest order came with a stern warning and a promise that the rules will be enforced. Brown said she directed Oregon State Police to begin coordinating with local police and sheriffs to regulate in-home gatherings.

She pointed out that violating her order could result in a Class C misdemeanor conviction, which includes the possibility of jail time.

“In terms of individuals, I am not asking you,” she said last week. “I am ordering you.”

But Oregon State Police Captain Tim Fox repeatedly declined to say how his agency would approach enforcement this week, only to offer they were “working on a plan.”

And late Tuesday afternoon, Brown’s tone seemed to soften.

“I expect local law enforcement to continue to use an education-first approach,” the governor said in a statement. “But Oregonians need to understand that these rules are enforceable under law.”

Later, Charles Boyle, the governor’s spokesman expanded on that: “... If people aren’t going to take this virus seriously, we are prepared to offer consequences. The Governor’s recent statement on partnering with law enforcement is a punctuation mark to hold people accountable in making smart choices that can save another’s life.”

So with new restrictions starting on Wednesday and doctors blaming social gatherings for the COVID-19 spike, the basic rule state leaders seem to want the public to adopt is common sense.

They want Oregonians to call Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration if they see a business violating the rules — not 911. And Portland Police stressed that people who spot their neighbors having overly large parties should call the non-emergency dispatch line, rather than treating the violation as an emergency.

After Brown’s statement on Tuesday afternoon, Fox, with Oregon State Police, gave more insight into the agency’s plan, adding enforcement agencies will only issue a citation as a last resort and will use their own discretion.

“Oregon Law Enforcement recognizes that we cannot arrest or enforce our way out of the pandemic,” he wrote in a joint statement with the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police.

In addition to closing businesses, such as bars and restaurants, and limiting the size of faith-based gatherings, the governor’s latest order called for limiting social get-togethers to no more than six people from a maximum of two separate households.

Health experts in Oregon and elsewhere have spoken in stark terms about the dangers of social gatherings, particularly around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Shortly after the Democratic governor promised to take a hard line on those who violate the latest restrictions, some conservative politicians publicly blasted Brown — and promised not to abide by them.

“My family will celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with as many family and friends as I can find,” Clackamas County Chair-elect Tootie Smith, wrote on Facebook. “Gov. Brown is WRONG to order otherwise.”

Another conservative politician, Wilsonville City Councilor Ben West, took to Twitter to say the governor was the first “in American history to threaten families with criminal charges for celebrating Thanksgiving.”

Brown did not threaten to punish people for celebrating Thanksgiving; she merely asked them to limit the size of family gatherings. Her new restrictions also mirror and in some cases are less stringent than those in other states, including neighboring Washington.

It remains unlikely, although still unclear, whether Smith or anyone who violates the order could actually expect a knock at their door on Thanksgiving. The governor’s office said law enforcement would enforce the order in the same way law enforcement officers respond to noise complaints about loud parties and issue citations. Those are typically complaint-driven systems; police don’t proactively enforce existing codes and laws but respond when they receive calls from the public.

Some local law enforcement had already carved out their own plans for responding to the new rules in Oregon — ones that relied heavily on educating people rather than cracking down.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office noted it had received numerous questions regarding Brown’s orders and what actions would be taken against people who don’t comply.

“That direction has not changed; educating the public regarding the rules and mandates will continue,” Sgt. Brad O' Dell with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email.

In Washington County, the sheriff’s office said it would also prioritize education.

“In extreme cases where people are at risk and education does not restore safety, enforcement is an option of last resort,” Danny DiPietro, with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an email. “An individual could be arrested and receive a citation in lieu of arrest for violating any of the measures.”

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee issued similar restrictions but admitted enforcement would be light.

“You’re not going to expect state troopers coming to your door if you have a big Thanksgiving dinner,” Inslee said in a press conference. But, he added, he hoped by putting the message out there, “people who want to abide by the law will abide by the law.”

Criminal charges for violating an executive order during the pandemic have been rare, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.

While some were charged during this spring’s “stay home, save lives” lockdown, it appears only one person in the entire state was convicted for violating an executive order. The person went to a park in Bend in violation of the order and repeatedly took COVID-19 safety signs from the park because they opposed Brown’s order, according to Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel

The individual was charged with several crimes and pleaded guilty to one: an Emergency Management and Services Offense, a Class C misdemeanor. They were ordered to perform 40 hours of community service and to write an apology letter to Bend Parks and Recreation.

While the governor and police work to explain the latest restrictions, Republicans would like them to abandon them entirely.

In a letter signed by House Republicans, they called on the governor to allow businesses to continue to operate.

“Our neighbors and friends won’t be able to pay their mortgages, pay their rent, or buy And Christmas presents for their children because of this decision. This is wrong,” they wrote.

The lawmakers called on people to use caution while gathering over the holidays, but said they were concerned with the violation “of our privacy as the state police and local law enforcement agencies are being ordered to investigate and criminally charge Oregonians based on the number of people they invite into their homes … we cannot and will not support any attempt by any police agency to violate the sacred space of any Oregonian’s home.”

Although Brown’s initial comments about penalizing those who violate the social gathering rules were more strongly worded, it now seems unlikely law enforcement will be making many house calls this holiday season.

Jonathan Levinson and Conrad Wilson contributed to this report

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.