Chicago Cops Don’t Know How To Enforce Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s New COVID-19 Order

Officers slam the mayor’s plan for them to enforce a public-health order requiring people with coronavirus symptoms to stay home.

Police Officer Uniform
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Police Officer Uniform
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Cops Don’t Know How To Enforce Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s New COVID-19 Order

Officers slam the mayor’s plan for them to enforce a public-health order requiring people with coronavirus symptoms to stay home.

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Updated Thursday, March 19, 6:15 p.m.

Chicago police officers say they’re baffled by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for them to enforce a city public-health order that requires people with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home.

The order, announced by the Lightfoot administration Thursday, aims to curb the virus’ spread by requiring “anyone exhibiting symptoms of illness indicative of COVID-19” to “shelter in their place of residence.”

A statement from the mayor’s office says “anyone who violates the order could be subject to citations issued by the Chicago Police Department or CDPH.”

But coronavirus symptoms are often indistinguishable from a common cold or the flu.

“We don’t have the medical knowledge to be able to judge what you have,” Fernando Flores, an officer in CPD’s Albany Park patrol district, said Thursday afternoon. “Maybe you just have allergies.”

Flores, elected this month to become third vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents 12,000 rank-and-file Chicago cops, said officers also have to obey privacy protections in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“I would be violating your HIPAA rights if I asked you, ‘Do you have the coronavirus? Do you have these symptoms?’ ” said Flores, a member of the union’s safety committee.

Officers in several parts of the city said the police department, as of Thursday afternoon, had not issued any protective equipment — such as gloves, masks, face shields or paper suits — that would enable patrol cops to be near contagious people, much less write them a ticket.

“I work on a 10-person team that got just 3-4 bottles of expired hand-sanitizer a couple days ago,” a South Side patrol officer said on condition he not be identified because he lacked permission to speak publicly on the topic. “That’s all they’ve given us.”

“We’ve gotten absolutely no guidance on how to issue citations to people with symptoms,” the South Side officer said.

A North Side patrol lieutenant, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, described the approach his district’s officers are taking: “If someone is sick, we’ll stay away.”

“We’ve received no directives whatsoever that we’re issuing citations [for violating the public-health order] or any information about how to do it,” the lieutenant said.

In a statement posted this week to the FOP lodge’s Facebook page, President Kevin Graham said the union has approached private vendors and the FOP’s national office to find safety equipment for its members.

“We will distribute these items ourselves if we are able to secure them,” Graham said.

The city’s order says anyone with COVID-19 symptoms “shall only leave their place of residence to seek necessary clinical care or evaluation, or for essential life-sustaining needs, such as obtaining medicine or food.”

Violators, according to the order, will face fines set forth in a Chicago ordinance on “quarantine/isolation regulations.” That code specifies fines of $100 to $500 per offense.

Asked how the order would be enforced, CPD spokesman Sgt. Rocco Alioto sent a brief statement Thursday afternoon that said officers who believe that someone has the symptoms will “follow our protocols, which would be to request (Chicago Fire Department) medical services respond to the scene to evaluate the individual and maintain distance when possible.”

A spokesman for Lightfoot’s office said he forwarded WBEZ questions about the order’s enforcement to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which did not respond Thursday afternoon.

Lightfoot described the city’s sheltering order in a speech Thursday evening but did not address enforcement.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about criminal justice. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.