EASTON — The first full days of Maryland's stay-at-home order came to a close with few incidents in Talbot County, leaving law enforcement with a ping of optimism. But Talbot police officers assured they're nonetheless prepared to use force if the mood changes over time.
Capt. John Bollinger of the Talbot County Sheriff's Office said, although the county has reported widespread compliance with the state directive so far, he's anticipating some residents will step out of line as the initial shock of the order fades.
According to Lt. Steve Elliott, a 12-person house party in Easton had to be broken up during the first week. "Two people left and they reduced the number to 10, so it was fine," Elliott said.
And, while other reports have come in from concerned residents, responding deputies know when to give people the OK — like they did with a group of six people who were kicking a ball around on a beach while maintaining an acceptable physical distance, he said.
Bollinger said there inevitably will be a "few people that are going to try and test the rules. But so far, we haven't had to take enforcement actions."
While county law enforcement personnel are hoping to avoid citing or arresting unruly residents, he said, they're "prepared to do whatever it takes" to keep people inside their homes.
Officers first will issue a warning and urge people to go home. But, in the event that someone is caught outside their home on more than one occasion for a nonessential reason, Bollinger said, "then we will take action."
"It's a criminal offense. We charge them and it goes from there," he said — although, he admitted, officers would prefer to not go through the charging process.
"Believe me, that's a last resort for us," he said.
Bollinger also commented on the up to one-year jail sentence and/or $5,000 in fines accused offenders face if they violate Gov. Larry Hogan's stay-at-home order, which went into effect Monday evening, March 30.
He said, despite local law enforcement's willingness to "do what we have to do" to enforce the order, he's not sure how effective a penalty would be, as courts are operating only on a limited basis as COVID-19 remains a threat.
"By the time it comes to court, everybody's going to forget why they're there," Bollinger said. "Hopefully, we can just keep reminding people what the rules are and they keep obeying so we don't have to go through the charging process."
Depending on how long Marylanders are required to stay home, "it could become an issue," he said. But his department's focus will stay on keeping residents safe.
"It's all for safety. It's about taking care of each other, and people are pretty good about it here," Bollinger said.
Easton Police Department has noted its officers will not make traffic stops "simply to ask drivers where they are going to determine if their travel is essential or not."
But, if an officer somehow determines an individual is engaged in nonessential travel, enforcement action will be taken, EPD stated.
As for how patrol personnel are protecting themselves while enforcement efforts ramp up, Bollinger said everyone on the force has personal protective equipment to wear when they're responding to a call.
Elliott confirmed, saying each deputy has an N-95 mask, goggles and a Tyvek suit, and they carry at least one change of clothes with them while out in the field. Though, he said, none of the deputies has knowingly come in contact with an infected person yet.
With the peak of the virus reportedly looming in the coming weeks, Elliott said he's hoping Talbot law enforcement's efforts to keep people at home will remain low-tension.