The repeal of the Arlington County Emergency Sidewalk Distancing Ordinance at the Sept. 15 Arlington County Board Meeting sits right in the middle of the widespread controversy. For some, It pits individual freedom against the appropriate role of the government in regulating personal conduct in order to control the spread of COVID.
Thrown in the mix are the Arlington restaurants who are struggling to stay in business and the efforts of Arlington County Police Department (ACPD) officers to enforce the ordinance that have been met with defiance, hostility and confrontation.
On July 31 the Arlington County Board passed an emergency ordinance that targeted groups of four or more people that weren’t adhering to 6-foot socially distancing requirements in public spaces where signs had been posted. It allowed imposition of fines of not more than $100 for violations of the ordinance. The ordinance stated it would expire after 60 days unless the County Board advertises and holds a public hearing on its permanency.
This ordinance was targeted at areas where patrons wait for long periods of time for admission to restaurants that currently have limited indoor space for customers. The ordinance was passed in response to the uptick in COVID infections after the Phase III reopening announced by the Governor on July 1.
The Virginia State Department of Health statistics record 3,819 cases of coronavirus with 491 hospitalized and 196 deaths in Arlington as of Sept. 18. An Arlington health official indicated that the statistics in the younger age groups 18-29 years and 30-39 years had gone upward in the state and the region after the Phase III reopening.
On Sept. 15, the County Board voted to allow the Emergency Sidewalk Distancing Ordinance to lapse on Sept. 29. Arguments to the Board ranged from accusations of hasty construction of the ordinance without appropriate engagement and public input to fear that it allowed the opportunity for selective enforcement against people of color to poor targeting for public health problems to inability of police officers to enforce the ordinance.
The police have not issued a single citation, instead encouraging voluntary compliance.
Nick Freshman, representing Arlington restaurants and a long-time Arlington businessman and active community member, pointed out that restaurants are “tired, worried and stressed” and can’t afford to lose any more business. Freshman said he is invested in safety and has hired more workers to help monitor the long lines, but this ordinance isn’t working.
Another restaurant owner suggested closing off the streets to allow more space for customers to spread out. Another observed that a group of unhappy patrons are holding the businesses accountable for the ordinance, and it’s affecting revenues.
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce raised concerns in a letter to the Board. “Arlington County could have been proactively constructive in developing this ordinance but it was not. It is still unclear how and where Arlington County plans to enforce the ordinance. As such we cannot assess the ordinance’s likely impact on businesses.”
Residents raised the concern that the language was vague and could unintentionally target a mother with her three children waiting at a bus stop.
The targeted areas were in Clarendon where an influx of patrons has been seen between 10 p.m.-2 a.m. It is unclear whether this is due to the diversion of customers to Arlington from Maryland and D.C. where bars close at Midnight or 10 p.m. respectively or whether more people now feel comfortable going out at night, or both. Other areas mentioned in the Board meeting were the 23rd Street restaurant corridor, Columbia Pike and Shirlington.
Acting Arlington County Police Chief Charles “Andy” Penn indicated the data from the last weekend in August showed that the size of the lines outside the establishments found 550 potential violations, and 480 people were warned. On Saturday the line got as long as 90 people at a time which makes it physically impossible with the space constraints to enforce physical distancing.
Almost universal opposition to the ordinance came with support for actions to confront the pandemic. But that concern was often overshadowed by their more immediate need to protect a struggling business, to feel safe walking around in their neighborhood or to avoid police confrontation.
Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey reminded the Board about the importance of wearing facemasks. An Arlington public health officer indicated that the most important things to prevent the spread of COVID is to stay at home or maintain 6 feet of social distancing.
Penn described some of the challenges the ACPD faces with enforcement in today’s political climate that adds layers of complexity around routine police actions. He said he had seen different struggles when police encountered customers who indicated that in their opinion enforcing a health ordinance wasn’t really a police matter. And he added with the challenges in law enforcement in the United States, this adds additional anxiety. Penn said frankly that officers were not engaging.
The goal of the original ordinance in July was to educate people and gain voluntary compliance with citations as a backup. As a result implementation was delayed while County Public Health officials, the ACPD and the Fire Marshal provided information to the public.
Penn indicated in response to a question from Board Member Katie Cristol that it was difficult to know whether the ordinance had promoted a partnership between the police and restaurants since they already had a successful working relationship in place through the Arlington Restaurant Initiative. County Manager Mark Schwartz said Arlington’s first priority continues to be education and voluntary compliance with emphasis on indoor compliance in restaurants. But Penn acknowledged there are still some problems.
Garvey, the one dissenting vote on reversing the ordinance, asked the question of whether the ordinance was working. “My sense is people are paying more attention but I’m worried if we step back that people will say O.K.; now we don’t have to worry. We’re doing an experiment. I hope if this problem continues, my colleagues will reconsider.”