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Respecting individual rights

Sheriff: limiting private gatherings ‘unenforceable’

Photo by Cameron Hurst Chautauqua County Sheriff James Quattrone said a mandate limiting private gatherings is “unenforceable without violating individual rights.”

An executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo limiting the number of people at private residences, heightened with Thanksgiving approaching, is largely unenforceable, Chautauqua County Sheriff James Quattrone said.

The order limits non-essential private residential gatherings to 10 people or fewer, and was among other efforts by Cuomo to stem increasing cases of COVID-19 across New York state. In addition, any establishment with a state liquor license, including bars and restaurants, are required to close at 10 p.m.; restaurants are allowed to offer curbside take-out after 10 p.m., but no indoor dining.

Gyms statewide also are required to close at 10 p.m.

The problem to some officials, including Quattrone, comes down to enforcement for limiting private gatherings.

“I do believe the only thing we are able to do is ask people to comply with the order,” the sheriff said. “Ironically, the governor is contradicting what he has recently had published on law enforcement reform (that) law enforcement should not be handling non-criminal calls.”

He added, “Law enforcement executives I have spoken with are not suggesting people have large gatherings, and we recommend following guidelines suggested. This is not necessarily law enforcement picking and choosing what laws to enforce but recognizing that this order is unenforceable without violating individual rights.”

Quattrone’s remarks are in reference to Cuomo who, on Wednesday during a COVID-19 task force meeting, called out officers who have stated they would not enforce the executive order.

“That, I believe, violates that person’s constitutional oath,” Cuomo said. “I don’t believe that person should be certified as a law enforcement officer. I don’t want a law enforcement officer who says, ‘I’m only enforcing the laws that I like or that I think should be enforced.”

Cuomo said he expects to see a surge in COVID-19 cases following Thanksgiving. The problem, he said, is groups of 10 to 25 people gathering during the pandemic.

“This living room spread is the new problem and it will go up after Thanksgiving, and you will see orange zones and increased positivity after Thanksgiving. I’ll wager you on it today,” he said.

Most of Erie County was moved from yellow to orange in terms of new restrictions. In orange zones, non-essential businesses (gyms, fitness center, hair salons and barbershops) are closed and schools must go to remote learning.

State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, questioned the legality of Cuomo’s order.

“Apparently Gov. Cuomo has forgotten that under our Constitution, only the state Legislature (not the governor) can pass laws,” Goodell wrote on Facebook. “There is no law that prohibits people from gathering for Thanksgiving.

“Governor Cuomo’s statement is frankly frightening to me as an individual and frightening to democracy; it’s arrogant and a violation of his constitutional duty. … To be clear, I urge everyone to take all appropriate precautions. You do not want to be the next victim of this pandemic. Nor do you want to spread the virus to your family and friends. If you exhibit ANY symptoms, have recently tested positive, or have been recently exposed to someone who tested positive, please do not gather with your loved ones for Thanksgiving!”

Quattrone said he doesn’t believe there are any “enforcement mechanisms in place” that would allow sheriff’s deputies to enforce the executive order. The most likely approach, with Thanksgiving next week followed by Christmas, is education.

“We will respect individual rights while educating and encouraging people to do what they can to prevent the spread of COVID,” Quattrone said. “With every right we enjoy, we have the responsibility to respect others rights so this isn’t the time to get reckless in our COVID prevention efforts.”

In Erie County, Sheriff Timothy Howard said last week his deputies will not be utilized during the Thanksgiving holiday to limit gatherings. “I have no plans to utilize my office’s resources or deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner,” Howard said in a statement. “This national holiday has created longstanding family traditions that are at the heart of America, and these traditions should not be stopped or interrupted by Governor Cuomo’s mandates.”

Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel agreed last week that enforcement posed a series of logistical questions. “We talked at great length about this,” Wendel said. “The enforcement is the most difficult piece. There was no definitive answer as to who will enforce this. … The local health departments are not going into homes. Is it code enforcement? Locally, there is no answer, and that’s the challenging part. Is the health department or the county going to be driving by homes to check on the number of cars? There are a lot of concerns.”

During Wednesday’s task force briefing, the governor was pressed on how sheriff’s departments — the agency most cited as being responsible for enforcement — were expected to limit gatherings.

“Nobody is saying knock on doors and count heads,” Cuomo said. “But you come across a gathering for one reason or another and there’s 20 people there, you say, ‘This can’t happen.'”

He added, “This is really hard to stop. … It’s very hard to restrict. It’s very hard to regulate, and it’s very hard to police. Is it hard to police? Yes, but if you see it, stop it. That’s really the point of the law — if you see it, stop it. Don’t invade privacy, don’t do any of that. But if you see it, stop it. Which is different than saying I just refuse to enforce that law because I don’t agree with it.”

Quattrone, meanwhile, thanked area residents for following current COVID-19 guidelines while being careful to not help further the spread of the virus as the holidays approach.

“We want to thank our community for their diligence in abiding by the guidelines and will continue to encourage people to abide by practical guidelines,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are hoping that they are not overwhelmed with calls regarding this order as there are more critical needs that should be attended to.”

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