Sheriff to enforce ‘social distancing’

Churches are not exempt from 10-person rule, says Sheriff Stephen

OKEECHOBEE — The business of the day for Sheriff Noel E. Stephen after the executive order issued on April 1 was to establish who and what is considered essential as it pertains to the order. First thing on Thursday morning, he met with Okeechobee Police Chief Bob Peterson, Maj. Donald Hagan and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission so they would all be on the same page with enforcement, he said.

Some of the businesses the order affected were small businesses like hair and nail salons, tattoo shops and clothing stores, things like that. They will not be able to operate after midnight on Friday, April 3.

The thing they will be concentrating on most will be social distancing, he said. “Recommendations in the order were for everyone to stay at home, but then the governor also says to allow people to recreate, hike, bike, hunt, fish things of that nature, which kind of contradict the stay at home order.”

“Ultimately, social distancing still applies to everything, as well as staying six feet away from each other, and no congregations of 10 or more,” he said. The governor says you can go to church, but then he also says there can’t be more than 10 people within 6 feet of each other. “That’s an awful lot of services for the preacher to hold on Sunday to get his congregation all preached to.”

The order instructs law enforcement to enforce social distancing so there are no groups of more than 10 people in public places. Sheriff Stephen said they have already been doing this. Last weekend, they found 40 or 50 people playing volleyball at the softball field volleyball courts and had to send them home. The weekend before, they found about 300 people on the soccer fields and had to disperse them.

Although now this is considered a misdemeanor, they are not arresting anyone for it. They are instructing them about the order and sending them home. “A lot of people aren’t knowledgeable about the order, nor do I want to put a bunch of people in jail for second degree misdemeanors,” he said.

They are already working to clear out as many as they can from the jail by giving full gain-time to the sentenced inmates. They have taken a list of their misdemeanors and lesser felons, property crimes and things like that, no violent crimes, and have requested the judge give them a sentence or lower bond to allow them to get out of jail. They have minimized their jail population and have spoken to their officers along with those of the city and requested they only put those individuals in jail who really, really, really need to go to jail. “I don’t need an outbreak of the virus in my jail,” he said.

“At this time, the majority of the court system is shut down anyway,” he said. “So, there is no expectation of people getting sentenced or let out right now. We were shut down for about two weeks on taking prisoners to the state prison, and we sheriffs in the state of Florida had almost 1,000 inmates housed in our county jails statewide waiting to go to prison that local taxpayers had to pay for prior to getting to the state system, where the entire state pays for them. Fortunately, our numbers were not that high, and since then, we have worked out a way to get them to the Department of Corrections.” The county jail normally has an average population of 275 to 280, and it is down to 259.

In the meeting with FWC and the police department, they discussed the fact that since boat ramps have been closed in the coastal communities, they are noticing an increase in boating traffic here, especially in the lake. There has been a significant increase in twin-engine, oceangoing boats navigating the river in the last week, he said. As the boat ramps and sandbars and congregating places are closed on the Intracoastal, some of those folks are starting to come inland, he said. “We will be out in force to monitor the stipulations regulating that, which is no vessels shall have more than 10 people aboard and vessels shall stay at least 50 feet away from each other.” There was a rumor that the FWC is stopping fishing, but that is not true.

“All these measures are in place to keep the outbreak from spreading. We all have to be careful and use our heads. No situation should have more than 10 people at one time,” he said.

With Easter fast approaching, he has talked to some preachers about drive-up services where people stay in their cars, he said, but it is still a congregation of more than 10 people. “Yes, we want them to be able to preach a sermon, but churches should not be allowed to do anything others can’t. If we let the churches do it then the atheist groups will want to do it, then somebody else will want to do it,” he explained.

The first step if they find a church meeting will be to explain what the order is. They don’t want to arrest a bunch of people for meeting at church, he said. “We’re not just going in and kicking the door in and taking everybody to jail. We’re trying to enforce the governor’s executive order for the well-being of the public so we can get out of this quicker rather than later.”

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