COVID tip line draws 1,650 reports; few investigated
VERMONT — A statewide tip line for citizens to report Covid-19 violations generated more than 1,650 reports, but fewer than 50 were reported to the police and only 15 were sent to the Attorney General’s Office.
A review by VTDigger shows nearly all of them were vague, inconsequential, or petty. Some involved neighbors reporting concerns about Airbnbs still apparently operating. In one case, a family member told authorities a relative was placing herself and others in danger traveling to Vermont from the West Coast.
The system was set up in April as a way to centralize reports of non-compliance with the rules set up under the State of Emergency declared by Gov. Phil Scott. The calls were routed through the Department of Public Safety’s Executive Order Reporting Tool.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said the intent of the program was educational and not punitive.
The system was set up to take a uniform law-enforcement approach to alleged violations of the Covid-19 regulations, Schirling said.
“Rather than create a fragmented system where you could call 150 different places, 70 different police departments, potentially health officers and various towns and communities, it seemed to make sense to centralize things into a single portal,” Schirling said. “This was to ensure that we were A) keeping to the main mission, which was education over an enforcement posture. And B) ensuring that we had a good flow of information and that we were being consistent statewide.”
INFORMATION WAS REDACTED
Schirling said it would be incorrect to say the state is “investigating” tips that came through the system. However, the records obtained by VTDigger were redacted for being part of an ongoing investigation into “criminal activity.” For instance, names and identifying information in the citizen reports were all blacked out.
VTDigger obtained and analyzed 1,468 of these reported violations, and found that only 43, just 2.9%, were referred to specific police departments. And only 15 were bumped up to the Attorney General’s Office for follow-up.
Only one case remains active — the state’s feud with Rutland-based Club Fitness Vermont. That case, alleging the club violated the coronavirus rules, is still in court.
Separate from the statewide reporting system, the office’s Consumer Protection Unit received 119 complaints and brought one “enforcement action” against a security company for price gouging, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
For each complaint on the tip line, a person could check off multiple categories, so although 1,468 reports were analyzed, there were 1,514 complaints in all, once the multiple categories were counted.
Statewide, there wasn’t a consistent pattern showing that violations being reported more frequently in some towns than others. Comparisons are difficult, because the data lack uniformity.
INSIDE THE REPORTS
Here are a few examples of the reports.
From East Burke: “I was out for a walk and came upon a family who I had not seen before. They mentioned that they were here from NYC quarantining. He was wearing medical grade gloves and asked me to not get any closer (I was on the other side of the road). He said they had been here for almost two weeks and planned to be here for over a month.”
From Windham: “I got a complaint from a resident of an Airbnb still operating across the street from him. He has called the owner of the house but has gotten no response. I drove past the house right now and there is a car with Maine plates. The owner of the house lives in Massachusetts.”
From Elmore: “There is an Airbnb on our road. There has been traffic in and out of it the past few weeks. There was a car with Mass. plates for the last week, and now there is a new silver sedan in the driveway with out-of-state plates. Our concern is that there seems to be a consistent stream of renters, although the executive order states that Airbnbs should be shut down till April 15 at least. This is disconcerting to some individuals on the road who are permanent residents here. If possible, I would prefer to remain anonymous although I understand my information is needed for this complaint.”
From Jericho: “There is a number of large groups gathering at the park area of (Jericho Elementary School). Tennis and basketball primarily but teens are hanging out at various times throughout the day.”
From Barton: “There are 10 or more kids in the basketball court have a boom box playing loud music the kids are being disruptive there are people who live next to the basketball court elderly who are sick I have asked the kids nicely to turn their music down and they refuse I told them their parents should be ashamed of themselves considering there is a stay at home order in effect.”
From Stratton: “Renters came in from Brooklyn 2 nights ago across the street from where I live. Yesterday they were gone during the day and they are gone now but I know that they plan on staying after they come back from wherever they are now. I know this because one of them knocked on my door this morning around 10 am asking for help moving a foosball table. When I explained that I can’t do that he replied with “oh right I forgot all about the coronavirus.” They are nice people as I have had encounters with them throughout the season, however their actions are frightening at this point. This is an obvious lack of public respect and a serious health risk while blatantly defying Vermont state orders.”
From Swanton: “The child is riding her bike and approaching neighbors. I asked it to be stopped. The mother is telling me that I need to stay inside my residence.”
The reports from across the state show the anxieties and fear Vermonters have felt throughout the pandemic.
In Rutland, one complaint reported that neighbors were offering their house as a “corona hideout” on Craigslist.
In another, a concerned family member reported that his sister was traveling across the country from Seattle despite her family’s opposition. “We are deeply concerned that she could be doing this willfully despite the dangers, and that she is a danger to herself and others at this time. When confronted by authority, she will relay the appropriate ‘buzzwords’ (social distancing being one), but to us she is denying any danger and existence of a virus whatsoever, saying that we have all been misinformed.”
A Stowe resident complained several children were playing on a rock pile. Other complaints claimed business owners were forcing their employees to keep working. “Business keeps employees in an enclosed space without proper safety equipment,” said one complaint from Stowe. “Working on renovations in building and threatening to cut unemployment benefits if they don’t come back to work to remodel the main building.”
Schirling said there’s a simple rubric to determine if a report deserves a follow-up.
If it’s a “point and time” incident, like 10 kids playing basketball at a specific time on a specific day, that won’t get a follow-up, he said.
But, if it’s a lodging property, or “high-profile,” like a gym operating above capacity or when it wasn’t supposed to be open at all, that will get a follow-up, Schirling said.
Who follows up? It differs, Schirling said.
“A local organization — typically law enforcement, but it could be a health officer or fire department, it could be our Division of Fire Safety, depending on what the nature of the report is — just goes out and checks in with folks and makes sure that they’re aware of the guidance (and) verifies whether there is an actual indication of a potential violation,” he said.
New reports continue to come in, but Schirling said the Department of Public Safety is evaluating whether to keep using the system.
“We’re looking now if there are better mechanisms or if it’s time for a new mechanism,” Schirling said. “And we don’t have that answer.”
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