Despite thousands of complaints, Delaware has issued few COVID-19 citations
Delawareans have sent in thousands of coronavirus-related complaints – from people not wearing masks in stores to large gatherings – to the Delaware Division of Public Health but only a handful have resulted in citations.
The complaint system allows the public to either call or email about any businesses that are not in compliance with COVID-19 regulations. DPH evaluates the complaints and often follows up with a phone call or site visit.
DPH also conducts random inspections of facilities they have visited or are high-traffic places such as the beaches around Labor Day or retail areas around the holidays.
The agency has received more than 4,000 complaints and has conducted approximately 1,800 site visits since the beginning of June.
Of those, just over 20 cases of administrative action taken against local businesses can be found on the department’s Enforcement Actions webpage. Included is information about which rules the business violated, how much they were fined and how the problems were solved.
While other cases are still pending and may be posted at a later date, the most recent citations are dated Dec. 10.
“Our first intent is usually to provide education and outreach,” said Jamie Mack, chief of DPH’s Health Systems Protection sector. “We would rather provide the correct information rather than coming in as a harsh enforcer.”
The most common violations are customers not wearing face-coverings, occupancy over the capacity limit and a lack of social distancing, Mack said. Facilities can also be cited for not have proper signage throughout the building.
If faced with higher-priority concerns, enforcement actions are taken immediately.
The first site visit results in a warning. Repeat violations lead to fines ranging from a couple hundred dollars to $20,000 and other actions like having the business voluntarily close and make corrections.
Some attribute Gov. John Carney’s COVID-19 guideline revisions that ended Jan. 11, which instituted a zero-tolerance policy, for the lack of new citations. Under this revision, there was no warning; business could be fined after the first offense.
Potential violations at non-businesses have also raised concerns.
Residents of Bay Pointe, a neighborhood in Newark, complained about a church operating from a home in their community.
Ignition Church holds weekly service and bible study on Sundays and Tuesdays. The number of people there can be deduced by the many cars lining the residential streets.
After receiving multiple complaints, state Rep. Eric Morrison visited the home to see what was going on.
“People were packed in like sardines. People were side by side in folding chairs, not wearing masks,” said Morrison. “The priest has denied that many people being in there, but I assure you they do. I saw it with my eyes.”
He said he counted 30 cars lining the street for Sunday service and noted that he was the only one wearing a mask, causing him to “stick out like a sore thumb.” Once seated, the priest paused the service to welcome him and jokingly ask if he was the state health inspector, he said.
Ignition Church was previously told by New Castle County that it was in violation of county codes back in February for running a church out of a home, but after an attorney for the church claimed it had legal religious protection, there was no follow-up.
“In my mind, the rules are there and this is a public health crisis,” Morrison said. “My duty as a state representative is to protect the health and well-being of my residents.”
To Morrison, allowing this church to violate COVID-19 guidelines is unfair to the other churches and businesses that are doing the right thing and obeying the governor’s orders.
Officials at the Health Systems Protections department of DPH said they try their best to apply the rules equally for the facilities they regulate, but Morrison said he has not had that experience.
“For many, many weeks I have worked on this. I have gone to many elected officials and many state agencies and this has gotten nowhere,” Morrison said, adding that the recent publicity given to the issue is what caused action to start being taken.
The state is now sending law enforcement to inspect the services and see if they are in violation of COVID-19 orders. A recent visit took place on Jan. 5.
“They’re going out into the public. You have to wonder, even outside of attending these services, what else are they doing to spread the virus?” Morrison said.
Private residences are still being cited for large gatherings despite the stay-at-home order and limitations announced by the city of Newark.
The Newark City Council passed its own ordinance stating that residences cannot have more than 10 people inside or 20 people outside, whereas the governor’s limit is set at 50 people for outdoor gatherings.
A violation of Newark’s ordinance can result in a civil offense charge with up to 20 hours of community service and a fine ranging from $100 to $500. A violation of the governor’s order is a criminal offense that results in a misdemeanor and carries a penalty of up to six months in prison and a fine ranging from $50-$500.
Although mask wearing is part of COVID-19 guidelines, Lt. Andrew Rubin of the Newark Police Department is not aware of anyone being charged.
“We’re not actively patrolling around and looking for people not wearing a mask,” Rubin said.
Law enforcement can be called by a business if someone refuses to wear a mask after being asked to do so, but the reason is due to the customer now becoming a trespasser and refusing to comply or leave the business, he said.
Officers focus on enforcing the city’s gathering limits and have charged 144 people from Aug. 24 through the end of the year for violating the ordinance.
On Dec. 28, Newark police received a noise complaint about a Center Street apartment and arrived to find a party of over 30 people. All individuals were found in violation of the 10-person indoor-gathering limit.
This comes months after Newark police arrived at three separate locations in the university area during Halloween to find more than 60 people total in violation of Newark’s gathering ordinance.
Contact Krys'tal Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.