Police drones broadcast social distancing message

Lewes, Rehoboth, Dewey use technology to get the word out
April 9, 2020

Police in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach have taken to the skies to inform the public about social distancing. 

Each department is now flying drones over the beach and trails. Lewes and Rehoboth’s drones are broadcasting a computer-generated message.

Lewes’ drone message says: “Attention. Per the governor’s orders, all individuals are to practice social distancing while using the trail. You are asked to maintain 6 feet of individuals who are not your immediate family or caretaker. If you have any further questions, please contact the Lewes Police Department. Thank you for your cooperation.”

This is the latest measure the law enforcement community is taking to ensure the public is following Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency order, now amended 10 times.

Large electronic signs were recently placed at the entrances to Lewes and outside the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal on Cape Henlopen Drive to inform out-of-state drivers of the governor’s 14-day mandatory quarantine.

Last weekend, Delaware State Police set up six checkpoints in Sussex County and stopped every vehicle with out-of-state license plates. Lewes police officers are now doing the same, having been instructed by Police Chief Tom Spell to stop every vehicle with out-of-state plates and advise them of the quarantine mandate from the governor. Spell said his department only recently started capturing statistics, so none are currently available.

Lewes officers are also placing informational flyers on windshields of cars with out-of-state plates when they are parked in parking lots or on public property.

“We have also visited every open business in the city and posted a state-issued flyer prohibiting out-of-state residents to enter and shop unless they have followed the quarantine order,” Spell said.

Cheryl Hopple, Beebe Healthcare’s emergency care coordinator, said many of the hospital’s staff have out-of-state license plates. To avoid being stopped by police going to or from work, she said, the state has issued yellow plastic tags for healthcare workers to hang from their rear-view mirror. The tags should be visible to oncoming traffic and any parked police vehicle monitoring traffic.

Hopple said the tags have been issued to every Beebe Healthcare employee. Employees are also asked to carry their badges for extra proof of their employment at Beebe.

Rehoboth closely monitoring out-of-state vehicles

Days after Carney ordered all out-of-state travelers into Delaware to immediately self-quarantine for 14 days to fight the spread of COVID-19, Rehoboth Beach Police Department began an initiative to closely monitor out-of-state travelers within city limits.

In a press release April 7, Lt. Jamie Riddle, department spokesperson, said the police department began following out-of-state motorists as they entered city limits April 3. The governor’s order took effect March 30.

The main goal of this initiative is to take action to monitor, inform and enforce the self-quarantine mandate imposed by the governor, said Riddle.

According to the press release, officers have followed vehicles to determine if their destination was within city limits. If so, the officers contacted the vehicle occupants to determine compliance with the 14-day self-quarantine mandate.

As of April 7, 102 individuals have been monitored since April 3 – 59 out-of-state motorists and 43 individuals attempting to use the beach or Boardwalk. Of the 59 motorists, Riddle said, 37 had final destinations within city limits. He said 11 of the 37 motorists contacted were found to be in violation of the 14-day self-quarantine mandate.

Riddle said no arrests have been made, and arrests are not the desired remedy, but may be necessary to combat blatant noncompliance. He said police have established contact with visitors for future reference to further justify enforcement action.

“While we want to be fair and just, we equally remain dedicated to protecting our community,” said Riddle.

Riddle said to ensure adherence to the closure of the beach and Boardwalk, police have installed electronic sign boards at all entrances to the city and are using drones equipped with public address systems to play a programmed message. Multiple surveillance cameras are also monitoring the area, he said.

Dewey Police Sgt. Cliff Dempsey said the police department is using drones to patrol areas of the beach and town. The drones do not have public address systems; rather, the department is using them to observe, and police are dispatched to disperse people on the beach, he said. The Town of Dewey Beach has completely closed its beaches, and exercising and dog-walking are not allowed. Dempsey said seasonal police were called in early to help enforce restrictions.

“As soon as we tell people to get off the beach, 10 more people get on somewhere else,” Dempsey said.

ACLU of Delaware urges balanced approach to monitoring

In response to Rehoboth’s monitoring of out-of-state vehicles, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware said it recognized the unprecedented public health emergency, but urged regular evaluation of restrictions to ensure they are no more restrictive than absolutely necessary.

In an email April 8, Karen Lantz, ACLU of Delaware legal and policy director, said measures that might in other times be clear violations of protected liberty rights, can be justified to keep people safe and flatten the curve.

State and local officials are making difficult decisions under extreme stress, said Lantz, but restrictions should be grounded in science and best practices implemented as recommended by public health experts. 

“At a time when community transmission is occurring in Delaware and all residents are being asked to practice social distancing and abide by various emergency orders, it is not clear what the public health justification is for singling out all persons with out-of-state license plates for additional restrictions and enforcement, without an individualized determination of heightened risk,” said Lantz.

Reporter Ellen Driscoll contributed to this report. 

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