How Metro Phoenix Police Are Enforcing Social Distancing

Tempe police break up a gathering on April 10 at the Tempe Town Lake marina.
Tempe police break up a gathering on April 10 at the Tempe Town Lake marina. Ray Stern
A customer coughed in a man's face during a fight over mandatory store exits.

Kids and families were asked to leave playgrounds and stop their Easter picnics.

Crowds of partiers were broken up, for their own safety.

These are some of the scenes that transpired over Easter weekend as police across the Valley took calls about social distancing and enforced state restrictions. And though some people got angry at Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego last week when she tweeted a number for people to report large gatherings to authorities on Easter Sunday, local police say the offenders were always cooperative. No arrests were made or citations written in the five cities that Phoenix New Times inquired about.

Governor Doug Ducey's March 30 "stay-at-home" order does allow police to bust people for violating social distancing. The order, intended to prevent the state's health care system from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, lets people go outside their homes for essential activities like grocery shopping and exercise, but mandates that "they shall to the extent possible maintain physical distancing of at least six feet from any other person." Further, it says people "should at all times and as much as reasonably possible comply" with the recommendations.

Violating the rules could get someone convicted of a Class One misdemeanor under Arizona's emergency management law. Before someone could be arrested or cited under that law, though, the order first requires police to notify offenders of the rules and give people a chance to comply.

Police in other states have made headlines for how they've handled — or mishandled — social distancing violations. In Colorado, police handcuffed a man in front of his 6-year-old daughter at a park while investigating a violation. A man in Philadelphia was violently pulled off a city bus for not wearing a mask. In Maryland, police have arrested 34 people over the last two or three weeks for not staying apart.

Such arrests in metro Phoenix may be on the horizon if people start to get ornery about their failure to comply. But so far, it's the Phoenix mayor whose actions related to social distancing have made the news, not citizens. After the state's biggest city enacted rules to restrict Easter picnicking at city parks, Gallego tweeted notice of the temporary rule. To the consternation of civil libertarians, she also gave out a nonemergency police line if "residents need to report large gatherings at city parks."

The tweet prompted nearly 1,000 replies, some of them blatantly sexist, with many people voicing anger that Gallego was allegedly encouraging people to "snitch" on their neighbors. Right-wing news sites wrote up articles about the tweet and local AM radio talk show hosts Mike Russell and Rob Hunter compared Gallego to Fidel Castro.

Gallego probably didn't need to tell people to call the cops about social distancing problems, though, because plenty of citizens in Phoenix and other Valley cities were already doing so.

• In Phoenix, police fielded 46 calls for service over the holiday weekend related to the executive order, said Sergeant Mercedes Fortune. No arrests or citations were issued, and Fortune could not provide any further detail about the incidents.

• In Chandler, "we responded to 24 calls related to perceived violations of the Governor's executive order," said Sergeant Seth Tyler. "Most of these calls were advisories of businesses violating, but a handful were related to kids playing on playgrounds and at basketball courts."

Tyler said the department didn't actually do any "enforcement," and that officers simply provided the people they contacted with information from the order.

• Glendale police took 21 calls from people "concerned about social distancing violations," said spokesperson Jose Miguel Santiago. Most were about people in parks, but some appeared to be about parties, he said.

• Tempe police broke up a large gathering of young people at the Town Lake at about 9:30 p.m. on Friday night after receiving a call of about 20 or so cars playing loud music at the marina. An officer who showed up didn't see any disturbances, but did engage in "educational contact," she said. All the people at the marina obediently dispersed.

"The area around Tempe Town Lake remains open where people are encouraged to engage in activity while adhering to the safe social distancing guidelines," Detective Natalie Barela said. "No crime was established."

At about the same time, New Times saw dozens of vehicles and people crowding the parking lot near Mill Avenue and Curry Road that services the Marquee Theatre and Town Lake. Numerous young people were failing to take heed of social distancing rules — potentially putting themselves and others at risk of catching the novel coronavirus that has killed 131 people in the state and 26,000 nationwide. But police never received any calls about that, Barela said.

Parks, and their parking lots, remain open in Tempe, though some park amenities like ramadas and benches have been taped off. Officers and employees of G4S Security will continue to make sure Ducey's guidelines are being followed "and will take action if a crime is established. Through our educational contacts citizens have been respectful and agree to disperse when asked without further action being needed," Barela said.

• Mesa police received six calls about social distancing over the weekend, said Detective Jason Flam, including a "weird" one involving a squabble at the Home Depot near Crismon Road and the U.S. 60 freeway. To help control the spread of coronavirus, the store only allows entry and exit through certain doors. One customer started giving employees a hard time about the setup and wanted to go out a different door, records state. Another customer intervened and asked the first man to follow the rules. After a brief argument, the first customer coughed in the face of the second man, saying he had COVID-19. The victim then slapped the customer, who charged him. The victim "retreated" and called the police, but the suspect left the store before police arrived.

"It was just kind of stupidity," Flam said about the incident. The arriving officer wrote a report on the incident, but it's unlikely any follow-up will occur, he said.

Other calls included people calling about a man in a park who was using workout equipment that was taped off, (police found the man outside the taped-off area), and business owners complaining about the way people parked their cars while trying to adhere to social distancing, blocking entries to properties.

One business owner called to complain that although his business had been forced to close, a vape store in the same complex was open. In a similar case, a caller complained that a hair salon blocked the view from its window and opened for appointments only. Flam said that in both instances, no officers were sent because of more important situations around the city.

Ducey's executive order runs through April 30, but could be extended.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern