State police encourage compliance with governor’s COVID-19 orders to keep Pennsylvanians safe
In these uncertain times, the Pennsylvania State Police remains committed to their public safety mission said Lt. Col. Scott Price, Deputy Commissioner of Operations, during an April 7 media-only teleconference about the department’s coronavirus response.
“This is an unprecedented time for us, but what I would say up front is the strategies that are in place…the mitigation strategies, the nonessential business closures, the stay at home orders, appear to be having an impact,” Price said.
Looking at traffic volumes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Price noted that state police have seen a 76.5% decline in noncommercial traffic volume and a 27.5% decrease for commercial vehicles.
“That’s a measure of not the result, but it’s a measure of a tangible, objective, empirical piece of data we can look at and say yes, Pennsylvanians are getting the message and yes, the mitigation strategies, we believe, are beginning to work,” he said.
Addressing the enforcement of Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay at home order, Price said the state police’s designed strategy was initially to educate and inform the general public, noting that the order was originally rolled out on a county-by-county basis.
Some people weren’t clear on where the stay at home orders were in effect and where they weren’t…we wanted to partner with the public, we wanted to get the word out, we wanted to explain what the nature of the stay at home orders is or was,” Price said.
Now that the order is consistent statewide, Price said state troopers continue to educate the public but will begin issuing more citations and enforcing violations if individuals fail to comply.
“If we begin to see greater degrees of noncompliance, certainly then that takes us into an enforcement route because that’s a public safety issue, then individuals who are noncompliant are endangering us all as this pandemic progresses,” Price explained.
He said troopers will not stop motorists for the sole purpose of determining a person’s reason for travel and would not stop or screen travelers entering Pennsylvania from out of state.
Price added, however that through the course of a traffic stop or violation of the vehicle code, troopers may ask about a person’s nature of travel and have “hopefully a very positive discourse to talk about the order and the criteria of the order.”
Noting the recent opening of trout season, Price said travel to engage in fishing, aquaculture work and hunting activities is allowed, although he encouraged people to fish or hunt close to home whenever possible to avoid long distance travel, and to practice social distancing.
When asked about enforcement of nonessential business closures, Price said as of April 7 PSP has initiated 541 investigations of business complaints and issued 178 warnings but have not cited any businesses thus far.
He added that under the purview of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement there have been 14,000 investigations, 56 warnings and six citations for licensed entities under the liquor code.
“In terms of whether we warn or cite, the posture has been largely to educate, to inform, to demonstrate to the business, perhaps through virtue of a copy of the governor’s order, what the criteria are,” Price explained, “and if the business remains noncompliant, then potentially move into an enforcement mode.”
He noted that in some cases, businesses have been warned on multiple occasions and continued to remain noncompliant, which resulted in the issuing of citations.
Price said the choice to cite or warn is “somewhat discretionary” on the part of individual troopers, but said in general, “we’re not citing on the first contact, normally it would be a warning, and then move into an enforcement posture.”
Regarding protective equipment, Price said a pandemic response plan has been in place for years and said the state police has limited equipment on hand, but also noted that PSP has encountered the same supply chain issues facing health care workers.
“I know the scale of this and the rapid acceleration, I think I can honestly say…we didn’t necessarily have the quantities on hand of some of this personal protective equipment that we would like to have,” Price said.
He said a limited number of N95 respirators are in the field for use when troopers contact confirmed COVID-19 cases, and that additional N95s are expected to arrive in the near future.
Additionally, Price said troopers are receiving cloth masks from the Department of Corrections’ fabric shops and explained that these masks seek to protect troopers and the public from possible asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission.
“The purpose of those masks isn’t necessarily to protect the wearer from infection or from acquiring a virus but is to protect everyone else from the wearer should the wearer cough or sneeze,” Price said.
“We want to protect everyone else in the event that we are infectious, and so we’re rolling out those surgical masks for use by our troopers in the field in the course of their daily duties.”
He also noted that troopers are issued Tyvek suits and gas masks, but said this equipment is reserved for a “scenario that requires a very much heightened level of protection” and will not be used during routine law enforcement activities, instead following the standing guidance of limiting contact when possible.
“We’re relying on all Pennsylvanians to look out for one another, to help us meet the mandates of our public safety mission,” Price said.
Speaking about the local impact of coronavirus in Lehigh and Northampton counties, Trooper First Class Nathan Branosky, Public Information Officer for Troop M-Bethlehem, wrote in an April 9 email that “our response to emergencies, such as crimes in progress have remained unchanged.”
Troop M troopers continue to service their coverage areas, but Branosky specified that some incident types will be addressed over-the-phone rather than in person to enhance social distancing measures.
Based on Troop M’s observations of the community, “it appears here in the Lehigh Valley the population has responded well to the Stay At Home Order.”
Branosky also said troopers are seeing less vehicle traffic on roadways “which is also resulting in a significant decrease in motor vehicle crashes.”
He noted that from March 23-April 6, 2019, Northampton and Lehigh County troopers issued 402 and 440 citations, respectively. For the same week, March 23-April 6, 2020, the tally was 41 and 71 citations, respectively.
However, Branosky said overall calls for service have slightly increased, noting that in the same week last year Troop M had 2,623 calls for service, while this year they received 2,645 calls.
Additionally, he stated that Troop M has issued 11 warnings against nonessential businesses which failed to comply with the governor’s closure order.
Branosky said troopers are following recommended CDC and Department of Health guidelines– washing hands, keeping workspaces sanitized, social distancing, limiting travel and staying home when feeling ill – but acknowledged that due to the nature of their work “we will ultimately put hands on people during arrests and during the performance of our duties.”