Not complying with COVID-19 orders could result in jail time

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The Pulaski County Health Department will be handling compliance of local businesses with the governor's orders regarding closings and health guidelines related to COVID-19.

The business landscape of Pulaski County, as with virtually all other U.S. communities, has changed drastically this week.

Over the first half of this week here in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear has ordered the closure of a vast swath of businesses -- not only the dine-in areas of restaurants, but hair salons, theaters, tattoo and piercing parlors, gyms, and other "public-facing businesses" that "encourage congregation and meeting in public places" or "cannot comply with CDC guidelines concerning social distancing."

Those orders, a reaction to the effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, went into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday. It does not apply to more essential businesses and those that don't necessitate close contact, such as:

businesses providing food; food processing; agriculture, industrial manufacturing, feed mills; construction; trash collection; retail; grocery and consumer goods; home repair and hardware' auto repair; pharmacy; medical, biomedical and healthcare facilities; post offices; insurance offices; banks; gas stations, laundromats; veterinary clinics; pet stores; public transportation; warehousing, storage and distribution; and hotel and commercial lodging.

However, the governor's order states that those businesses must still practice CDC guidelines as far as keeping six feet apart, cleaning surfaces, washing hands and practicing hygiene, and sending sick employees home.

So what if businesses don't comply with these orders?

They'll likely get a visit from the Lake Cumberland District Health Department.

"The health department would enforce most of those; that's who regulates a lot of those (types of businesses)," said Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield. "The health department could shut them down, that could be a potential legal recourse."

Hatfield noted that KRS Chapter 39A.100 gives both the governor and county judge-executive authorization "to do certain things" including the state of emergency policies that are now in place.

"If anyone doesn't adhere to the orders put in place by either the governor or judge, then they can be prosecuted under that same statute," said Hatfield. "Any violation under that statute is a Class A misdemeanor, which is (punishable) by up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine (of up to $500)."

Hatfield said that so far, "we haven't had any complaints from people not following orders and recommendations ... so we want to encourage people to keep doing that because that's the best way to keep us all safe."

Capt. Mike Correll of the Somerset Police Department also said that the health department "has the jurisdiction over most circumstances applying to ordered shutdowns."

Said Correll, "If someone were to refuse that order, the next course of action would be up to the health department. If an order signed by a judge stating law enforcement shall do something, (for example) 'shall cite,' 'shall issue a summons,' and so on, then we would get involved.

"Ultimately, most businesses require licenses they could lose for refusing an order and I don't think any would do that," he added. "I feel like the businesses in Somerset would consider the welfare of all more important in our current situation."

With workers losing their jobs and businesses at risk of closing permanently, some may be looking for loopholes or ways around the order. But Shawn Crabtree, executive director of the Lake Cumberland District Health Department, said that "looking for exceptions to the rules is not going to help anyone out."

"I personally feel like a significant minority of people are looking for exceptions to the rule," he said. "If you look around you and you're in a group of five to six people in close contact, that's not good. We're dealing with a communicable disease. If you have that kind of business where you have a group of people congregated around, that's problematic. Try to look for ways to fit yourselves into the rules than ways to get yourself out of the rules."

Crabtree is hopeful that businesses will be cooperative about self-enforcing the rules, noting that his staff is "spread very thin."

"Since the government is delegating the ability to enforce this to the health department, if we have to go to the court system (to deal with a business that doesn't comply), that would be a big mess for everybody," he aid. "Right now, we don't have the staff to be pulled out to court."

If a complaint is received about a business, Crabtree said that the health department would likely give the business a call first, then come by in person if that didn't work.

"If it's a permitted facility, we have the ability to pull their permit," said Crabtree. "There's a variety of things that we do permit."

Other things that the government has given the health department authority over in the state of emergency would have to be referred into the legal system.

"It doesn't have to be the governor," said Crabtree. "Either the local county judge-executive or another (official leader) who declares an emergency in the county could delegate additional authorities to the health department.

"Each situation that came up would be unique and we'd have to figure out what that looks like," he added.

Crabtree said that at the current time, health officials are "just trying to keep people spread out," and said that people not putting themselves "into situations where they're getting exposed" potentially to COVID-19 "is helping."

However, "with everything we're putting into place, it's still going to pick up over the next few days," he said of the virus activity.

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