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Law enforcement taking educational approach to new COVID restrictions

Local law enforcement is opting to continue its policy of educating those found in violation of COVID-19 restrictions after Gov. Tim Walz announced new restrictions this week.

Sheriff Steve Sandvik

Effective from 11:59 p.m. Nov. 20 through Dec. 18, in-person social gatherings with individuals outside one’s own household, including wedding receptions, are prohibited and bars and restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery service only. Fitness clubs, entertainment and event venues must close and adult and youth sports are paused (college and pro sports are exempt). Retail businesses, child care centers, salons and places of worship are allowed to stay open with proper precautions.

“We’ll operate the same way we did before,” said Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik. “If there’s a valid reason to be making contact, we’ll educate people on the governor’s orders, but we’re not going to be driving around trying to make additional contacts with people.”

“The order does have a penalty provision for those sections deemed required,” Austin Police Chief David McKichan said in a notice on the Austin Police Department’s Facebook page. “We would prefer to not have to initiate any type of enforcement action if we can solve any issues through education or other means. Austin’s business community has been fantastic in this regard so far as have most customers.”

Walz’s social gathering ban is more severe than in previous orders, leading some to feel concerned about police responses to household events, such as Thanksgiving celebrations. Sandvik said that is not the case.

“That’s not the angle the Sheriff’s Office is taking in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Our expectation is that people will try and follow the governor’s orders to help the medical and public health professionals curb this virus. We don’t want to have any unnecessary

Austin Police Chief David McKichan

contact. We’re trying to stay healthy ourselves.”

“The social gathering section is the part that affects all of us and I am sure people have both questions and strong opinions on it,” McKichan said. “If you simply read the headlines or even the short update on the Stay Safe MN web link provided above, you may think all those non-household contacts are barred. That is not the case. […] We need to be mindful of our officer’s time and contacts with people and limit their exposures while on duty to preserve our staffing levels. Due to the many exemptions, it is not possible to tell why people may be at other people’s homes and we do not encourage calls on Thanksgiving, or any other day, because someone’s neighbor has three extra cars in the driveway. Thirty people in someone’s backyard and we would understand that might get called in to be checked on, but that is probably unlikely this time of year. Outside of something like that, we would only be at a home to follow up on the usual things that get police called to gatherings such as noise complaints, fights and property damage. […] . If these other factors cause us to be at a gathering that appears to be egregiously violating the order, we would have the option of citing the host of such a gathering under the wording of the order. We obviously hope to not encounter that situation.”

Sandvik said law enforcement will continue to encourage people to follow the order.

“There is medical guidance behind (the order) when they see where a lot of the spreading is occurring right now,” he said. “It is spreading fast, but that’s outside law enforcement’s purview and I don’t anticipate the state making us go to houses. They’re more concerned about bars and restaurants and if we do receive those complaints, we would follow up and educate them on what the executive order says and leave it at that. Their licensing entities can take action if the state feels the need.”