Pickup basketball and soccer games, once innocent pastimes, are now against the law.
Local law enforcement officers, however, hope no arrests are necessary as they enforce a statewide March 20 emergency order, reiterated in a supplemental order Friday, that bans “gatherings of any size that cannot maintain a 6-foot distance between persons,” and is aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett said he’s sympathetic with people — especially kids who are out of school — who seek to get together with friends, but the emergency order is important.
“Most people I think today are very conscious of what’s going on, that it’s a deadly disease,” Puckett said. “So if there is that social gathering and we ask them to disperse, most are going to disperse.
“But if they don’t, those people will have to be arrested and brought to jail. There’s no citation that can be written. They’re going to have to come to the jail to be processed.”
State Attorney General Steve Marshall reminded law enforcement officers statewide of their role in enforcing the order with written guidance. He explained that the emergency order was also adopted as an emergency rule by the state health officer. Violation of a health rule is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $25 to $500.
Even the attorney general, however, cautioned against aggressive enforcement.
“While the unprecedented nature of this pandemic and the government’s evolving response seem to demand some restraint related to criminal enforcement of this order, if a violator has been made aware of the state health order and the refusal to comply presents a threat to public health and safety, the penalties … are available as an enforcement tool,” Marshall wrote.
State Health Officer Scott Harris on Friday reiterated that the social-distancing order applies to outdoor sports. He gave golf as an example of an open-air activity that likely can comply with the ban on gatherings that fail to maintain a 6-foot distance between people.
Law enforcement agencies are unlikely to know about most illegal social gatherings unless they receive a report.
"If we were aware of a pickup basketball game or soccer game we’d disperse it, but we may not know about it unless someone calls us," Puckett said. "They’re kids, mostly. If you have a 15-, 16-, 13-year-old, they’re begging to go out. Kids are going to see each other in the neighborhood and they’re going to get together. And parents are thankful to get them out of the house because they’re driving them crazy, I’m sure. Whether kids or adults, most of them are good, honest people who are sick and tired of being in the house. If we’re called, we’d just politely tell them to disperse."
Like Puckett, Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen does not expect his officers to make any arrests, but also like Puckett he didn’t rule it out.
“We always hope that people will abide by the laws without enforcement being necessary. We want to be able to depend on the citizens to do the right thing. If they don’t, we’ll take enforcement actions,” Allen said.
And the required social distancing doesn’t work with most sports.
“Basketball’s a contact sport,” he said, and if his officers see a game in progress, “We would stop the game, yes.”