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Nassau, Suffolk prefer persuasion when it comes to COVID-19 enforcement

A second fire marshal offense for alleged COVID-19

Nassau and Suffolk counties are mostly using persuasion — rather than punishment — to get local businesses to comply with state orders aiming to stop the spread of the coronavirus, officials said.

Although thousands of employees in the two counties have the authority to write court summonses that could lead to fines of $2,000 to $10,000, only a small percentage of cases involving businesses allegedly violating COVID-19 regulations led to either county issuing summonses.

The State Liquor Authority, which has a much more limited regulatory scope than the counties, has taken action against far more Long Island businesses for alleged violations of coronavirus orders than Nassau and Suffolk agencies combined, a Newsday review of county and state enforcement records shows.

Nassau has a more extensive coronavirus enforcement apparatus than Suffolk. Investigators have been more likely to issue written warnings and court summonses in Nassau for offenses such as lack of mask-wearing and social-distancing, or, in the past, for businesses that illegally stayed open despite orders to close.

Officials in both counties said they prefer to educate and warn business owners first.

"We’re not going out looking to generate enforcement on COVID," Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said. "We’re looking to get people to obey requirements to bring the infection rate down. I really think the fact the infection rate has come down in tandem in both Nassau and Suffolk is a testament to the fact our strategy has worked well. We rarely get repeat complaints."

Nassau has a similar approach, County Executive Laura Curran said. Many businesses are struggling financially, and "what they need is support and help," she said.

"I believe our business owners, they get it," she said. "Nobody wants to be the place where there’s an outbreak. They want to do the right thing."

Curran and her Suffolk counterpart, Steve Bellone, said that once businesses are warned they are violating Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's COVID-19 executive orders, they typically comply.

“We’re not going out looking to generate enforcement on COVID. We’re looking to get people to obey requirements to bring the infection rate down."

Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron

Orders signed in March required the closure of nonessential businesses and barred on-premises dining, but they were modified with new orders as the state began its phased reopening. Executive orders also instituted an array of other restrictions and mandates, including requiring face coverings in stores and other public venues, limiting the size of gatherings and mandating that businesses facilitate social distancing.

"When the police come in to discuss any situation or any potential violation, and … it is determined there is a violation, we’ve had overwhelmingly great compliance from businesses," Bellone said.

Cuomo has in the past been critical of enforcement on Long Island, especially in the Hamptons. On July 24, he said local government and police "are not enforcing [executive orders] aggressively enough," and singled out New York City and Long Island, saying, "Nassau County police, do your job. Suffolk County police, do your job."

Three days later, he said Nassau and Suffolk had improved enforcement and "been more rigorous" than New York City.

Asked whether Nassau and Suffolk are taking the right approach to enforcement, Cuomo’s office on Wednesday pointed to a Sept. 9 coronavirus briefing in which the governor said, "Nassau and Suffolk actually increased their compliance."

Authority has only 30 investigators

The Newsday analysis focused on State Liquor Authority and county records from March through mid-September, depending on the agency. The liquor authority has only 30 investigators statewide, a number supplemented during the pandemic by investigators from other state agencies and sometimes local police.

The county offices that have the authority to enforce the governor's orders include the health department and fire marshal in Nassau and the police department in Suffolk. In addition, some town, village and city police departments conduct COVID-19 enforcement.

Although Nassau County's fire marshal is a key part of enforcement, in Suffolk, the fire marshal has limited responsibilities, and enforcement is handled by town and village fire marshals, Cameron said.

The Nassau fire marshal’s office issued 23 court summonses through Thursday for alleged offenses such as on-premises dining and workouts at gyms before they were authorized, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Law request and interviews. The Nassau Department of Health has not brought any businesses to hearings that could lead to fines after inspections of hundreds of restaurants.

The Suffolk Police Department issued seven summonses — all in April and August — after finding 138 cases of noncompliance through Tuesday, according to police records.

Meanwhile, the State Liquor Authority, whose purview is limited to restaurants, bars and other venues that sell alcohol, filed 119 cases against Long Island establishments, 58 in Suffolk and 61 in Nassau, through Thursday, according to SLA records. Many cases include multiple charges, and each SLA charge carries a maximum $10,000 fine, said Sharif Kabir, the agency's executive deputy commissioner. Statewide, there were 1,084 SLA cases through Thursday that included COVID-19 charges, records show.

The SLA board suspended the liquor licenses of five Nassau and six Suffolk businesses — and 201 statewide — for offenses related to COVID-19, records show. As of Friday, licenses for two of those 201 businesses — neither on Long Island — were canceled, a penalty between a suspension and full revocation.

Suspended businesses can get their licenses back through a negotiated offer with the SLA board, and in most cases, the SLA accepts a penalty below the original fine amount, Kabir said. Businesses paid penalties of between $4,000 and $50,000 to lift their suspensions, records show.

"The idea is not to have the most punitive fine levels or take the position that we’re never going to settle these cases," said Beth Garvey, special counsel to Cuomo. "It really is about getting compliance."

Compliance with social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines is especially important as the weather cools and people spend more time indoors — where the virus spreads more easily — and as higher-risk venues such as gyms reopen, said Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of health care epidemiology at Stony Brook Medicine.

“If you lose your liquor license, you have very serious consequences.”

Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki

The specter of a liquor-license suspension for restaurants and bars that typically get much of their revenue from alcohol sales is a bigger incentive for businesses to comply with COVID-19 regulations than a court summons issued by local law enforcement, county and town officials in Nassau and Suffolk agreed.

"It has a much heavier weight to it," said Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, because "if you lose your liquor license, you have very serious consequences."

Local law enforcement agencies sometimes participate with the SLA in COVID-19 inspections, although not usually, Kabir said.

Cameron said Suffolk police have visited hundreds of establishments with the SLA. The Suffolk sheriff’s office is rarely involved in COVID-19 investigations, Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Sharkey said.

There have been more than 50,000 SLA inspections linked to COVID-19 statewide since mid-June, most of which were a sweep over a particular geographic area, Kabir said. The 30 SLA investigators cannot handle that many cases, so the state formed a COVID-19 enforcement task force to inspect liquor-license establishments that also includes investigators from other state agencies, including the state police, the health and state departments and the Office of Children and Family Services, he said.

Nassau issued hundreds of warnings

Nassau has two agencies that conduct the most enforcement: the fire marshal, which submitted 485 reports noting violations as of July 16, and the health department, which had 656 reports with COVID-19 violations as of Aug. 17.

At both agencies, the violation reports were in a sense warnings, without financial or other penalties, officials said.

The fire marshal reports were "orders" to stop the violations. A second fire marshal offense often led to a court summons, Nassau Assistant Chief Fire Marshal Michael Uttaro said. There were 23 summonses as of Thursday, he said.

The Nassau Health Department, which primarily inspects restaurants, found alleged violations such as lack of face coverings and inadequate distance between tables. The agency can send cases to an administrative hearing officer and ultimately issue fines of up to $2,000 per violation per day, but no COVID-19 case has gone to a hearing, spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said. Almost all the violations were first-time offenses, she said. One case, though, involved a restaurant with violations that occurred on four separate dates.

All health department inspections for which records were provided were in July and August. Laurain said that is because restaurants before then had been closed for on-premises dining. Outdoor dining reopened on Long Island on June 10.

Nassau police officers sometimes issue verbal warnings or educate business owners about the executive orders, but refer cases to the fire marshal or health department for further enforcement, police spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun said.

In Suffolk, a police matter

The Suffolk Police Department is the sole county agency that issues summonses, county spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said.

The labor and health departments have inspected businesses but do not issue summonses, she said. The labor department would send cases to the police department for enforcement, and the health department would consult the county attorney's office, she said.

The county Department of Labor received more than 5,700 complaints of alleged violations via an online reporting system and contacted each business — inspecting 871 of them — to clarify COVID-19 regulations, she said. Most of the complaints were unfounded, she said.

In addition, the health department began inspecting gyms once they started reopening Aug. 24, Guilfoyle said.

All of the 277 Suffolk gyms inspected as of Wednesday were in substantial compliance with COVID-19 regulations, a health department statement said. In Nassau, 50 of the 167 gyms inspected needed "additional education with corrective action," and changes were made on the spot, so the gyms remained open, Laurain said.

Cameron said that, as of Sept. 9, 137 businesses and individuals were found by Suffolk police to be violating COVID-19 orders, out of 2,727 complaints. They were issued verbal warnings, Suffolk police said. The department did not have a breakdown by type of offense.

Police issued seven COVID-related summonses as of Sept. 9, three in April and four in August, according to police records. The department declined to release the summonses.

Cameron said that, in addition to regular police enforcement actions, which usually were in response to complaints, police — mostly new recruits — made more than 12,200 visits to Suffolk businesses to educate them about COVID-19 regulations and, if necessary, issue verbal warnings about violations. There are no records of the verbal warnings, he said. Most of the visits were before late May, he said.

Complaints in Suffolk were less likely to lead to written violations than complaints in Nassau, records show.

Through July 16, 11.5% of 4,210 fire marshal complaints led to an order to vacate or remove violations, according to records. In Suffolk, 6.3% of 2,030 police complaints led to a finding of noncompliance as of July 10, Cameron said.

A problem with face coverings

On Long Island, much of the public attention on enforcement has focused on both the town and village of Southampton, which Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker have singled out for what they say may be lax enforcement.

Southampton Town compliance officer Ryan Murphy said the code enforcement and animal control departments have issued multiple COVID-19-related warnings. The town fire marshal only issued summonses in one case, in connection with a July concert in Water Mill, he said.

Skrynecki, the town police chief, said COVID-19 "inspections are part of our daily routine."

"Our numbers are reflecting that people are taking the precautions that are recommended," he said. "We’re not spiking. We’re maintaining a low level of new COVID infections."

Town police have issued more than 20 warnings to businesses and one summons, in addition to five referrals to the SLA, he said.

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren and Police Chief Thomas Cummings did not return phone calls for comment.

The City of Long Beach had problems earlier in the summer with large gatherings on its beaches, but after the city on July 20 barred nonresidents from the beach on weekends and cut off oceanfront and boardwalk access nightly, there have not been similar issues, city spokesman John McNally said.

"Those measures have been effective," he said.

Liquor-license suspensions

The State Liquor Authority has suspended the licenses of 201 businesses statewide, including 11 on Long Island and 159 in New York City, for alleged offenses related to COVID-19.

Nassau: 5

Suffolk: 6

Bronx: 20

Brooklyn: 30

Manhattan: 42

Queens: 63

Staten Island: 4

SOURCE: State Liquor Authority. Data is as of Sept. 17.

Liquor-license cases

The State Liquor Authority filed 1,084 cases, including 119 on Long Island, involving alleged violations related to COVID-19. Many businesses had multiple charges.

Nassau: 61

Suffolk: 58

Bronx: 69

Brooklyn: 116

Manhattan: 368

Queens: 246

Staten Island: 9

SOURCE: State Liquor Authority. Data is as of Sept. 17.

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