When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in late March that state police and other officials would intercept Florida visitors from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana at airports and along I-95 and I-10, and order them to self-quarantine for 14 days, it seemed like a forceful but reasonable move that might help slow the spread of the coronavirus in the state.
So far, however, it has had zero impact in Indian River County. That’s because no police agency in the county has received any information from the state about people from locations with “substantial community spread” who might have been coming here.
The Florida Department of Health says it has collected thousands of traveler forms, which include the drivers’ contact information and trip details, but none of that information is reaching local authorities – at least not here, not yet.
Instead of checking up on clearly identified New York or New Jersey visitors coming into the county to ensure they are following the governor’s order to isolate themselves, police have been reduced to fielding calls from residents claiming that suspect out-of-staters are not complying with the law.
Police are also monitoring social media, where there has been a flurry of posts on Vero Beach-related Facebook groups from residents claiming they had encountered “New Yorkers” and other “northerners” ignoring the governor’s order.
“We had a number of those phone calls when the order was first issued, and I understand why,” Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers said. “People are nervous and scared, and they’re worried that someone from the New York area came down here and brought the virus with them.
“It’s a very valid concern, but there’s not much we can do about it,” he added. “You see a lot of New York and New Jersey license plates in this county this time of year, and most of those people have been here for months. So, unless someone tells us, ‘I just got here from New York,’ there’s no way to know.
“Just having a New York license plate isn’t probable cause for us to stop them.”
Under Florida law, anyone who violates the governor’s isolation order may be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor and would be subject to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
With no specific traveler details coming from the state, however, the order is nearly impossible to enforce, despite all the social media posts and phone calls from residents.
As of Sunday, in fact, no enforcement action had been taken by the Sheriff’s Office, Vero Beach Police Department or Indian River Shores Public Safety Department.
“Due to the influx of people into town, we suspect there are more than a few who would fall under the order,” said Indian River Shores Public Safety Director Rich Rosell. “But suspicion isn’t enough to engage anyone.”
Since DeSantis issued his first order on March 24, Florida Department of Health officials, supported by the National Guard, have been screening passengers arriving at the state’s airports from the New York area and telling them they’re required to self-isolate for 14 days.
On March 29, when the order was expanded, the Florida Highway Patrol set up checkpoints on eastbound I-10 at the Alabama state line and southbound I-95 at the Georgia state line for similar FDOH screenings and warnings.
According to Stacy Brock, a local spokesperson for the FDOH, the highway screenings had produced more than 4,200 traveler forms with driver and trip details, including Florida destinations.
But apparently none of that information has been passed along to local law enforcement agencies.
Flowers said state and local law enforcement agencies participate in conference calls every day, but he was unaware of any database containing information on travelers entering Florida from hot zone areas.
Rosell said he hasn’t received any coronavirus-related information from the state authorities about out-of-state visitors who passed through Florida airports or interstate highway checkpoints.
Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey praised the state’s efforts but said it is “difficult to follow up” on everyone whose travel began in a COVID-19 hot zone.
“If we had information on a specific person, we’d check it out,” Flowers said. “But even then, all you really can do is tell them they need to self-isolate. It’s not like we’re going to set up a stake-out.
“The purpose of the orders isn’t to arrest people; it’s to keep the community safe and healthy,” Flowers said. “That’s why we’re trying to do this with the three E’s – education, encouragement and enforcement.
“Everyone should be staying home, except when they need to go out for things like getting food and supplies,” he added. “And when you do go out, be sure to practice social distancing.