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COVID-19 fines are more theory than practice

While the governor has given local health districts and law enforcement agencies the power to fine individuals who don't wear masks in public or are involved with large gatherings, they have not been issuing fines.

But many health districts, including Ledge Light Health District, say they still aren't equipped with the tools and proper guidance to do so. Police departments, though equipped to hand out citations, are leaning toward warnings and educating the public.

On Sept. 18, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order stating that individuals who are found to be in public without a mask on can face a fine of $100. People who attend events larger than the permitted size will be fined $250, while organizers of those events will be fined $500.

The order doesn't require law enforcement agencies and health departments to fine people found in violation of the guidelines; Lamont said it's simply giving those organizations the power to do so at their discretion.

Steve Mansfield, Ledge Light's director of health, said "the ability to have a penalty associated with noncompliance is a good tool" that gives the district a clear way to respond to direct violations of the executive order. But as of right now, it's only a good tool in theory.  The district has not been equipped to actually issue a fine, he said.

"The intent of executive order is to provide municipalities and departments with a tool, but the mechanics of it are not clearly defined," Mansfield said. "Though the executive order makes it clear that we have the authority to issue a fine, the mechanism for doing that is unclear at this time."

LLHD also has not been provided with supplies to issue physical citations or instructions for what to do with payments that are made for fines. The executive order states that funds accumulated from citations are to go to the state's general fund, but the health district hasn't been instructed on how to transfer those funds, Mansfield said.

"If the department decides they need to issue a fine there literally is not a mechanism in place — we don't have a citation book, we don't have the knowledge base to issue a fine," he said.

Due to the lack of instruction, Mansfield said Ledge Light has not issued any citations. And he isn't aware of "any health districts in the region that are utilizing any type of fine system at this point."

"The last thing we want to do is to issue a fine when we don't have the mechanisms to do so," he said.

A spokesperson for the governor's office said, "at this time, the best route for towns is to consult with local law enforcement or the chief state's attorney with any specific implementation questions."

The spokesperson said Friday that the office is aware that there have been many questions surrounding how to implement the order and that the state Department of Public Health and chief state's attorney plan to provide more information about "how these fines can be issued by local health departments and other non-law traditional enforcement municipal officials."

Voluntary compliance is the goal

In Waterford, police have not issued any fines related to COVID-19 and the department said fines will not be its preferred response to violations of mask orders and social gathering restrictions.

"Although enforcement is an option, it is not our first option," Lt. Marc Balestracci said. "Our agency will attempt to mitigate any violations and gain voluntary compliance when appropriate."

Balestracci said Waterford police have not sought any advice from the state about how to enforce the guidelines or issue fines.

In East Lyme, no infractions have been issued, but the town's police department has sought further guidance about how to proceed with the order.

Chief Michael Finkelstein said discussions have taken place between the department, regional police chiefs, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and regional emergency management groups and the department has consulted written guidance from the Office of the Chief State's Attorney.

The New London Police Department has not issued any fines related to COVID-19, either, and plans to approach violations on a case-by-case basis.

"Our rank and file are aware of the executive order and its content," Capt. Brian Wright said. "If we should respond to such a matter, we would handle each situation appropriately and with regard to everyone involved."

He said that public education and safety are the department's priorities.

Connecticut State Police have issued zero fines for COVID-19-related violations, according to Trooper Christine Jeltema.

Troopers were provided with a "training bulletin" that listed the amounts of fines for different violations and directed troopers to the state-issued guidelines for phase 1 and phase 2 of reopening. The department has not sought any additional guidance from the state.

The governor's office said it was not aware of any fines being levied yet but it is not tracking the number of fines handed out.

t.hartz@theday.com

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