“Many people on playground playing basketball” in West Roxbury, read one of the complaints that poured into the City of Boston’s website over the last few days. “Fourth day of construction in defiance of the COVID-19 ban, with work crew not enforcing social distancing,” said another complaint from Back Bay. “Scores of people playing soccer,” reported a frustrated East Boston user on Friday. "While the rest of us are doing our part during this pandemic these people think they are better than the rest of us.”
In the midst of an unprecedented public health emergency, the governor has banned gatherings of more than 10 people and told nonessential businesses they must shut down. Those are critical steps for preventing the spread of the virus, and the vast majority of state residents appear to be complying. But clearly some residents haven’t gotten the message. Towns and cities need a strategy for convincing holdouts to heed the orders while leaving the door open to fines and arrests if flagrant, repeated violations persist.
As a first step, mayors and the governor should keep using their bully pulpits to emphasize — again and again — the importance of avoiding any gatherings, even among people with no coronavirus symptoms. (Especially since COVID-19 is contagious before people feel symptoms.) In Somerville, Mayor Joseph Curtatone is using the virtual megaphone of YouTube to beg residents to come to their senses. “We have people having pick-up basketball games, arranging playdates with their kids, hosting coronavirus parties. Stop. This cannot continue if we’re going to overcome this epidemic and avoid the worst-case scenario,” he said in a video posted Friday. The mayor of Revere used an actual megaphone over the weekend, reminding people at Revere Beach to observe social distancing.
If moral suasion doesn’t work, cities can also try some low-tech, albeit unpopular, deterrents, like removing the hoops on basketball courts so that they’re unusable. Mayor Marty Walsh said Sunday that the city had already started putting zip ties on hoops, but if that doesn’t work, taking down the rims would be a logical next step. Boston is also trying to put up more signage at parks to explain social distancing. Officers can also tell people to disperse. Closing parks and beaches, as Florida did after much foot-dragging, should be a last resort, since that also deprives people who are following the rules of a place to walk or jog. But it could become necessary as the weather warms.
Cities and towns have been reluctant to escalate to more punitive measures. “I don’t want to get to the point where we are fining people,” Walsh said on Monday. "I don’t even want to get to the point where we are zip tying the basketball courts and taking hockey nets away, but unfortunately we have to right now. "
In New York, though, a reluctant Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday the city would start issuing $500 fines. “I don’t want to fine people when so many folks are going through economic distress, but if they haven’t gotten the message by now, and they don’t get the message when an enforcement officer’s staring them in the face . . . that person then deserves the fine, so we’re going to proceed with that.” In Italy, more than 20,000 people have received fines for going outside without a valid reason. In Tampa, a pastor who said he’d close his church only for the End Times and continued to hold large services was even arrested.
Certainly, Walsh and other mayors should exhaust every other option first. But time is of the essence in fighting the pandemic’s spread, and fines shouldn’t be off the table. It’s an unfortunate reality of America’s fragmented public health system that mayors are stuck making decisions that national officials make in other countries. Whatever it takes to send the message that residents must obey bans on public gatherings, mayors need to be ready to do.
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