Sheriff: We won't be 'peeking in your window'

New York's 10-person gathering limit will be hard to enforce

Joseph Spector Jon Campbell
The Evening Tribune
Sheriff Allard

ALBANY — New York and New Jersey will limit private gatherings to no more than 10 people, a move aimed at stopping large get-togethers particularly during Thanksgiving to prevent further spread of coronavirus.

Now they face the challenge of trying to enforce it amid skepticism even from law enforcement.

Governor Andrew Cuomo wears a mask prior to a COVID briefing in New York City on Oct. 18, 2020.

Steuben County Sheriff James Allard said his department's ability to do so is limited by the very laws they're sworn to uphold.

“We are regulated by the legal guidelines of our response to complaints as to whether or not we have license and privilege to enter private residences, based upon warrant, consent or exigent circumstances,” Allard said in a written statement. “As such, the men and women of the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office will not be peeking in your window or attempting to enter your property to count the number of persons at your table on Thanksgiving.”

Still, he said in principle he agrees with the goal of the restriction.

“Keeping social circles as small as possible, especially during the holidays, will allow us to better weather the storm,” Allard said. “Please keep your family safe during this challenging time.”

He wasn't the only sheriff in the state questioning how to enforce the rule.

“I have no plans to utilize my office’s resources or deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner,” Timothy Howard, the sheriff in Erie County in western New York, said.

New York and New Jersey's governors, though, are encouraging residents to simply limit their parties during the holidays as the states try to beat back a surge in COVID-19 cases.

"I or any of us can’t be inside your living room for Thanksgiving," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday. "You probably wouldn’t want us to begin with, but that does not mean that we, as an enforcement matter, are not going to be as all over it as we can be."

What are the new executive orders?

The governors can use public health orders to impose restrictions during the pandemic, as they have with closing businesses or mandating the wearing of masks in public spaces.

On Monday, Murphy said indoor gatherings in New Jersey will now be limited to 10 people, down from 25, and the outdoor capacity will be lowered to 150, down from 500

But the state is still allowing religious services, political events, performances, weddings and funerals and memorial services of up to 25% of a room’s capacity, up to 150 people.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week banned indoor and outdoor gatherings at private residences from having more than 10 people. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island also have similar rules 

Peter Kehoe, executive director of state Sheriffs' Association, speaks at a news conference in Albany on Feb. 7, 2019, about law enforcement's concerns with legalizing recreational marijuana in New York.

"We call it 'living room spread,'" Cuomo said Friday. "'But I'm just with my family. My family would never infect me.' Your family's not in control of it."

The Northeast states are also expected to release more joint restrictions in the coming days, especially as college students are coming home for Thanksgiving break and in most cases not returning to campus until early 2021, Murphy said.

"We want to make sure that we can align policies as much as possible, or at least be aware of what the other states' policies are," Cuomo said Friday.

How can an indoor ban be enforced?

States do have the ability to enforce public health orders and issue fines to those who do not comply.

In New York, a violation of any order from the state health commissioner, public health law or rule can, when it is willful, come with as much as a $10,000 fine. It's lower for violations of orders applying to most private residences: $50 for a first offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses, according to state law. 

But how that would apply to the indoor capacity limit is unclear. It's a question law enforcement is also unsure how to answer, said Peter Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Sheriffs' Association.

He said police would like more clarity as to how they could enforce the indoor limit.

"I’m sure law enforcement would be very willing to do their job and enforce that law, but to leave them hanging out there will all this speculative stuff is not fair to law enforcement," Kehoe said.

And some sheriffs are saying they will not enforce the order in their communities.

“People have enough anxiety in their life without thinking that the police are going to come to their door and check on how many people are there,” Richard Giardino, the Republican sheriff in Fulton County in central New York, told the Times Union in Albany.

Rensselaer County Sheriff Patrick Russo outside Albany said if a call comes in to check on a residence, it could take hours to get a search warrant of a home. 

But he urged residents to use common sense and follow best practices, such as wearing masks when social distancing is not possible and washing hands frequently.

“I encourage our residents to do the right thing and act responsibly,” Russo said in a statement.

Asked Monday how the Department of Health suggests local governments can ensure the capacity limit is followed, the agency issued a statement urging local governments to enforce it but did not offer specifics on how to do so.

“Two keys to slowing COVID are individual compliance and local enforcement," spokeswoman Jill Montag said in the statement.

"While local law enforcement should do their jobs, it's up to all New Yorkers to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by following state guidelines, wearing masks, practicing social distancing and proper hygiene, and staying home when they are sick."​

Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo, said the goal is to try to keep people safe during the holidays and prevent further spread of the virus.

"We urge everyone to continue to be smart and act responsibly," he said. "We know this makes people unhappy, but better unhappy than sick or worse."