When Ohio State University in Columbus held a pandemic-conscious virtual commencement ceremony this month, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook gave a video address to a safely spaced crowd in parking lots outside.

The appearance of caution was deceiving.

The real action was blocks away, said Emily Foster, a university retiree: Student parties raged on lawns, porches, alleys and even rooftops for three days in plain violation of the state’s shelter-in-place order -- and without interference from police. Foster called to complain, concerned that coronavirus would spread in the neighborhood and beyond as students returned home.

Police wouldn’t act. “I was told that they were concentrating on education, not enforcement,” Foster said.

As U.S. states revive, it’s been left to local governments to enforce new rules on how to contain Covid-19. Ill-equipped, understaffed and with limited powers, few are ready to police face masks and social distancing. That weakness was highlighted this week when Tesla CEO Elon Musk steamrolled Alameda County, California, which couldn’t stop him from reopening his factory more than a week before it was initially allowed.

As of Thursday, all but five U.S. states had either already begun reopening or were scheduled to, many of them with rules meant to keep residents safe. Scientists warn that unregulated commerce will mean a death toll that soars far above the 85,000 fatalities in the U.S. so far.

“We need really detailed guidance from the federal government, which still leaves the issue of whether local governments have the capacity to enforce the rules,” said Ashish Jha, director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute. “In areas that don’t have the capacity to enforce things like crowd limits in bars, you are going to see outbreaks. And the impact of that is going to be substantial and severe.”

More than half of cities expect to cut services, including police, according to the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Counties are even more vulnerable because they oversee health departments, hospitals, nursing homes, emergency medical services and coroners, “which unfortunately are in high demand,” said Teryn Zmuda, chief economist at the National Association of Counties. By July 2021, counties will lose $114 billion in revenue and incur an additional $30 billion in costs because of Covid-19, she said.

Now, underfunded health departments accustomed to policing the isolated restaurant health-code violation are responsible for making sure people are far enough apart in all of them. Police and sheriff’s deputies are being asked to crack down on crowds without proper protective equipment.

Law enforcement “wasn’t ready for this,” said David Mahoney, the sheriff of Dane County, Wisconsin, who is the incoming president of the National Sheriffs’ Association.

First « 1 2 3 4 » Next