Opponents of lock-down orders have been quick to play up incidents like the fining of a surfer using a closed California beach and an undercover sting of a woman doing nails in her Texas home. But those are exceptions.

In fact, many agencies are reluctant to get tough. Mahoney said tough enforcement drains resources from fighting crime and can damage community relationships.

“Everything I do is based on relationships, on gaining trust and legitimacy,” said Mahoney. “It is my personal belief that taking a heavy-handed approach would be counterproductive.”

New York City police have been accused of using excessive force and targeting minorities while enforcing social distancing and face-mask rules. “This situation is untenable,” said Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch. Officers have received no practical guidance, he said, “leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves.”

In California, which had one of the strictest stay-home policies, police officers in Los Angeles haven’t arrested anyone for violating the order against large gatherings. Nor have officers in Sacramento, where “education remains our primary goal,” said Police Officer Karl Chan. The same “education-first direction” stands in Portland, Oregon, said Police Bureau spokesperson Nola Watts.

In Tennessee, local officials lack any clear-cut authority: Republican Governor Bill Lee called his reopening order a “pledge” because it’s voluntary. Restaurants are urged, not ordered, to seat diners safely apart and to keep bars closed.

Tiny Force
Good public-health enforcement has two elements: health departments and public-safety agencies, said Oscar Alleyne, chief program officer for the National Association of County and City Health Officials in Washington.

Health agencies can order quarantines, license facilities, inspect them for compliance and shut them down for violations, he said. Public-safety agencies enforce orders that violators ignore. The division of labor has broken down in the pandemic, with states ordering far broader mandates and parts of the public resisting restrictions.

Local health departments have fewer personnel to respond. Nationally, they’ve lost 50,000 workers in a decade. Cincinnati’s has cut 40% of its workforce during the current pandemic.

“The idea that local health departments are going to be able to go out and do these inspections on an ongoing basis isn’t real,” Alleyne said.