Local law enforcement addresses Coronavirus


Did last week’s spring weather help spread Covid-19?

  • Times-Courier

By Mark Millican


The Gilmer County Commission and the Ellijay and East Ellijay City Councils, respectively, have passed ordinances limiting gathering sizes of people and suggesting “social distance” spaces. The two city police chiefs responded to questions about how their agencies would address potential violations, and also how they are trying to keep their officers safe. 

Due to attending several meetings at the first of the week, Capt. Frank Copeland of the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office was unable to respond before this week’s press deadline of the Times-Courier.

Chief Edward Lacey of the Ellijay Police Department said officers have trained previously with the “limited amount” of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) they have available. The force has requested additional PPE from the state, he said, and officers are also “altering procedure.”

“For example, when they take someone’s license (during a traffic stop), they use a fresh glove on their left hand, their non-weapon hand, to handle documents that may or may not be contaminated … then when that stop is completed, they turn the glove inside out (and discard it),” Lacey said.

He reported the agency has also received around three gallons of hand sanitizer from Huff’s Drug Store, a local pharmacy.

“Normally, we’re used to decontaminating equipment and those kind of things,” Lacey explained. “We’re doing what we normally do, but on a magnified basis, if that makes any sense.”

If an officer is found to be symptomatic, there are plans in place to get them tested.

“We have areas in the county that are designated for isolation and quarantine, if needed,” he said. “We haven’t needed that, with the Lord’s help. We’ve issued all of our officers safety goggles, and we’ve got some more coming in through the state. Our (Gilmer) Emergency Management association has been real good about helping us locate resources we need for protective equipment. That’s working out pretty good.”

Lacey noted, “Most people living in the county are trying to self-isolate, for the most part. The problem we have is people who are visitors coming in who are congregating in common areas, especially this (past) weekend when it was very pretty. Our restaurants are allowing people to take food to go, but then they go to a public setting and congregate.

“Our city ordinance we passed prohibits organized groups of 10 or more from gathering, and being no closer than six feet apart. So we would see those groups and ask them to disperse and move along. There were some areas that were being used for that purpose, and we asked businesses for permission to take those off (that outdoor dining designation) so that they’re not tempting. For the most part, businesses are very helpful and compliant, and hopefully (the ordinance) is working as designed.”

Lacey was asked if older schoolchildren had been gathering anywhere to “hang out” together.

“We have not seen that,” he replied. “Of course, people are able to exercise at Harrison Park as long as they’re not in organized groups. They’re still able to go get the essentials at the grocery store and pharmacy.”

Chief Larry Callahan of the East Ellijay Police Department said his officers will focus on “flagrant” violations of the anti-gathering ordinance, since the town’s resources are limited.

“I’ll be honest, it’s extremely hard to enforce unless it’s just really flagrant,” he said. “Other agencies close to us have had some issues where people have violated closed parks and things of that nature. Those situtiations are pretty easy to go tell them, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.’ But really, this is going to have to be the honor system.”

Traffic is another matter altogether, Callahan pointed out.

“People have asked me, ‘Can’t you do something about all this traffic on the road (in a time of virus)? Can’t you do something about it?’ Well, no, because we still have the (U.S.) Constitution to abide by and people have certain freedoms,” he said. “And unless there’s a reason to go out and stop people in cars, we’re just not going to do it.

“Other parts of the country have talked about setting up roadblocks and determining if people belong in certain locations, and that’s fine if that’s what they want to do. But I don’t feel like that’s what we should do.”

Callahan reported there have been “some” teenagers hanging out in parking lots.

“We’ve talked to them about what’s proper and what isn’t, and so far we haven’t seen a lot of pushback,” he said. “People we have corrected have acknowledged, ‘Yeah, I understand, I’ll do better.’”

Callahan was asked how officers would respond on duty calls. How will they protect themselves, or try to?

“You hit the nail on the head — you try to,” he answered. “We got officers a mask, just (Monday), courtesy of our (county) Coroner Jerry Hensley. He was able to get some from the state coroners donated to us. So that will help.”

Callahan said on a small force of seven officers they are trying to keep one or two officers in reserve in case one of them is exposed to the Coronavirus.

“We can pull him out of the rotation (if that happens), and pull somebody else in,” he said. “On calls that we go on, we try to maintain 6-8 feet between us and them. Personal contact is what’s going to spread this, and lack of it is what’s going to slow it down. So that’s what we’re shooting for.”


Officials: Expect ‘surge’ in cases 

Law enforcement officers around the state have been meeting, online and otherwise, to discuss responses to the raging worldwide virus. Ellijay Chief Edward Lacey reported that recent shared info confirms the worst — Covid-19 is expected to spread before it subsides.

“We expect, over the next week or 10 days or so, for there to be a surge of cases in the state, especially because we’ve had a real pretty week, and weekend, and everybody got out and about and started traveling,” he stated. “Everybody gets complacent and starts thinking that everything’s fine, and they’re going to disregard the request from the state, and that’s when we’re going to have some problems.”


Penalties for gathering in groups 

Ellijay Police Chief Edward Lacey said if groups of adults or teens are seen gathering publicly, the department will “inform them if they are in violation and ask them for compliance (to disperse).”

“If they don’t, they’re subject to being cited or arrested,” he continued. “It is a misdemeanor with up to a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail, or both.”