SOUTHINGTON — While no fines have been issued or licenses suspended, the regional health district has logged 19 pandemic-related complaints against businesses and individuals since June and the police department another 12 since this spring.
A sudden influx of calls and uncertainty over how to handle complaints about pandemic restrictions not being followed led police leaders to hire supernumerary and retired police lieutenant Michael Baribault earlier this year.
At the start of the pandemic, police took any complaints about people not following Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders on distancing and mask wearing. The Plainville-Southington Regional Health Department has fielded complaints since July, according to director Shane Lockwood, although any enforcement would be conducted by police.
Most of the complaints have been about customers or workers not wearing masks and failing to stay six feet apart. In a majority of cases the health department sent a letter outlining the pandemic requirements or officers reminded business owners of the rules.
“We’re trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Lockwood said.
In response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Record-Journal, the health department released 19 complaint reports dating from June until late last month.
Lockwood said he got complaints early on in the pandemic that weren’t documented, mostly concerning distancing and mask-wearing at the big box stores in town. Baribault or the health department would inform the store of proper procedures following a complaint.‘Everybody was really scared’
The most complaints came to police or the health department this spring, Lockwood said, and concerned people not distancing or wearing masks at big box stores. It was also early on in the pandemic that the health department was most busy with trying to find and distribute supplies, work with nursing homes and inform the 800 licensed businesses of the health district about the new guidelines.
Lockwood said the day Police Chief Jack Daly asked about assigning an officer to help the health department was one of the most memorable of the pandemic.
“During those critical times when we had nothing Jack came up with that idea and it changed our response,” Lockwood said. Baribault “freed up hours a day for me to respond more efficiently.”
Police Lt. Keith Egan said Baribault also helped develop policy for the department on how to operate during the pandemic and how to respond to calls.
“Nobody knew how to handle this thing,” Egan said.
In addition to handling calls, Baribault helped document COVID cases in the district and distribute masks and supplies.
Baribault left the role in July. Lockwood said he’s still missed but that complaints have decreased significantly since then. People have become accustomed to the restrictions, Lockwood said, and have begun to avoid those without a mask or who aren’t distancing rather than call police on them.
“I think early on everybody was really scared,” he said. “We don’t see that anger.” ‘No one tells me anything’
On Aug. 10, a caller told the health department that employees at Grace’s Restaurant weren’t wearing masks or properly distancing. The complainant also said tables weren’t far enough apart.
Restaurant owner John Kandemir said his employees do wear masks. There’s a sign out front telling customers they also have to wear a mask when entering.
“I can’t force the people to put them on. I don’t want to tell people they have to leave. It’s a tough time for us,” Kandemir said.
He said he’s never received a complaint from a customer.
“No one tells me anything. They come in, they eat, they leave and they call the health department,” Kandemir said.
The health department got two similar anonymous complaints in August and two more in September. Lockwood said the restaurant was in compliance each time the matter was investigated.
Spacing requirements means Grace’s Restaurant has seven fewer tables. Kandemir installed plexiglass around tables, allowing him to put more in, but said his business is a quarter of what it was.
“People are scared,” Kandemir said.Enforcement, licenses
Lockwood said the health department is allowed by executive order to revoke licenses for restaurants or businesses that are refusing to comply with pandemic restrictions. It’s on business owners to make sure customers also comply and business owners are allowed to refuse service to those who won’t.
“If it’s happening in your place, unfortunately as a license holder, your license is ultimately on the line,” Lockwood said.
The department hasn’t needed to do that, he said. Lockwood said he works to educate businesses about their responsibility and provide them with signs or other materials to encourage customers to space themselves apart and wear masks.
“Our focus the entire time has been education rather than enforcement,” he said.