Ala. sheriffs' health order enforcement runs gamut from refusal to citations
Some sheriffs are refusing to enforce the order, while others are responding to violations with citations or an education-based approach.
FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ala. — In recent days, a handful of sheriffs have spoken of their unwillingness to enforce Alabama’s “safer at home” health order, an order that prevents dining in restaurants, keeps barbershops and beauty shops closed, and blocks churches from holding large services.
The list includes Republican sheriffs, such as Hal Allred in Lamar County and Mark Moon in Blount County. Also on Monday, Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims said he has no intentions of “actively patrolling churches,” even though Marshall has seen a recent jump in cases and now has more infections and more deaths than up the road in the much larger Madison County.
Near Mississippi in Franklin County, Sheriff Shannon Oliver said his deputies are not “going out and searching for someone violating” the order. Franklin has also seen cases jump in the last week, but has not seen a single death linked to the pandemic.
But in rural Chambers County at the Alabama-Georgia state line, where the pandemic has done some of its worst damage in this state, Sheriff Sid Lockhart is making sure his deputies are armed with the state health order and are enforcing it.
“This is nothing to play with,” said Lockhart, whose county has seen a state-leading rate of infections at 90 per 10,000 residents. Chambers County has just 34,000 residents and already 21 deaths from coronavirus. “We have to work together and get through this.”
Lockhart, a seven-term Democrat, said Monday was unaware that some of his fellow sheriffs were floating the idea of not enforcing the “safer at home” health order announced by Gov. Kay Ivey last week.
Sheriff Moon in Blount County, who did not return phone calls from AL.com, told the local media that he instructed his deputies not to go into businesses and churches” to enforce the governor’s order. Sheriff Allred in Lamar County, on his personal Facebook page, said he doesn’t believe the “gradual reopening” strategy from state health officials makes “any sense,” citing a “completely packed” Walmart and full beaches in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. He also said he’s instructed deputies not to enforce the guidelines that have been handed down.
Both of those counties have seen relatively little impact from the virus so far. Blount County north of Birmingham has seen only 40 confirmed cases and no deaths. Lamar has reported only 11 cases so far.
“We are smart enough to use precautions,” Allred wrote of the residents of Lamar County. “I refuse to tell y’all how to worship or make a living. This is my decision and mine alone.”
The police department in Oneonta, the Blount County seat, posted on Facebook that it views the health order as “lawful” and that it intends to enforce it.
Almost all of the sheriffs reached Monday said they have either had few violations, or none at all. None appeared to be actively enforcing the order, opting instead to a reactive approach of responding to complaints.
Sims, in Marshall County, said he doesn’t anticipate any problems with violations to the governor’s order, but he’s also telling his deputies not to “go into a church house and cite people for having church service.”
The state health order prohibits most gatherings of more than 10, which includes churches.
Enforcing church closures is a problem for elected sheriffs where the weekly church services are a part of the social fabric. In 2016, a Pew Research poll listed Alabama as No 1 among states in the number of residents viewing themselves as “highly religious.”
“I’ve spoken to several pastors who have called me about church service, and what they wanted to do and what they can or can’t do,” said Sims, whose county is now reporting 344 cases, up by 33 percent over the last ten days. “But we’re not going to drive by and check the churches. We’re not doing any of that.
“If someone went into a church and saw they were having a service and were social distancing, I am not going to bust one of them up on a Sunday morning. I’ll trust the people of Marshall County to protect themselves.”
In Chambers County, a service in early March at Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church is believed to have led to a tragic coronavirus outbreak that infected more than 10 congregants and killed at least three people.
Lockhart said his department recently learned of another church scheduling a service this past weekend. He drove to the church himself and taped a copy of the governor’s order to the front door. The church, Lockhart said, opted not to move ahead with the service.
“The churches have had services, but they stay in their cars and the preachers are outside with sound systems,” said Lockhart. “I think, in general, (the order) is working well.”
In Lowndes County – a Black Belt county that has been hit hard by coronavirus cases with 76 cases per 10,000 residents – sheriff deputies are issuing citations to those who do not obey the state order.
“We’re trying to enforce this as best as we can,” said Sheriff Christopher West. The tiny department in a county with fewer than 12,000 residents, has seven deputies. He said that citations have been issued to people who have hosted large yard parties and social gatherings. There have been no arrests made.
“Everyone realizes (there is an order in effect), but no one gives a damn,” said West. “We’re posting information in reference to COVID-19 on our Facebook page and have been trying to disseminate information. Of course, people watch the news. They see the governor on TV, and the public health director. But people are tired of sitting at home. They are out of work and cannot go to church.”
West said that his department is in “total support” of the state health order, saying that Lowndes County is “predominately African American” and that coronavirus has “affected African Americans in disproportionate numbers.” According to state figures, about 47% of those who died of coronavirus have been black, while just 27% of Alabama’s population is black.
“I will be glad once it’s over,” he said.
In Mobile County, which has the state’s highest number of coronavirus cases (1,216) and deaths (65), Sheriff Sam Cochran said that violations to the state health order tend to “resolve itself” once authorities speak to a business owner or church pastor. Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies have also not had to write tickets, opting instead to seek voluntary compliance.
So far, it’s been working.
“We have not had any person or group fail to disburse when asked to do so,” said Chief Deputy David Agee.
Cities are also tackling violations on an individual basis as restaurants, barbershops and more are itching to reopen after Alabama allowed small retail shops to reopen to limited capacity.
But few, if any, citations have been issued under the state health order. Police in Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville have not issued citations.
“The overwhelming majority of our businesses want to do the right thing,” said Kelly Schrimsher, spokeswoman with the city of Huntsville, who said the city’s police are focused on education when it comes to the governor’s order.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who has advocated for a reopening of restaurants and other businesses that remain closed under Ivey’s order, said following the order is about upholding the oath of office a public official takes after being elected to office.
“I believe that what the governor has done is legal and we intend to uphold those laws,” said Stimpson. “We’ve had a soft approach toward those who choose to reopen. After a conversation, in every situation, those business owners have agreed to stand down. I think part of the reason is they know that every day, we are trying to use our influence to make sure (the business) can get open as quickly as possible.”