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Pittsburgh Area Police Confident Businesses Will Comply With Shutdown Order

Gene Puskar
A sign on the Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Side announces its closure Sunday, March 15, 2020.

Local police were prepared to enforce a statewide shutdown order for non-life-sustaining businesses on Monday, but said they generally expected businesses to cooperate.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued the order last week to curb the spread of coronavirus, and enforcement began Monday, with the help of state agencies and municipal police forces.

Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said Monday morning that he was aware of only a few complaints, and that some of them involved businesses that are considered life-sustaining and, thus, exempt from the governor’s directive.

“We’re confident that most people will voluntarily comply with the order,” McDonough said. And he added that county police seek to support businesses through the transition.

“We’re strongly encouraging our officers [and] detectives to use discretion and primarily educate business owners on the benefits of compliance with the order,” he said.

In a statement on its website, the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety agreed that non-compliance is not likely to be a problem.

“The Pittsburgh business community wants to do what’s right for the greater safety of the community,” the statement read, “and we believe they will follow the guidelines and mandates. We understand that this is a difficult time for business owners, and we do not want anyone to be cited for non-compliance.”

County and city police both said they will not actively search for violators, but will investigate complaints from residents.

Northern Regional Police Chief John Sicilia said his department will take the same approach in its coverage area, which includes the North Hills communities of Bradford Woods, Marshall, Pine and Richland.

“And I think the police departments in Allegheny County, from what I’m hearing and seeing, we’re all on the same page,” he said. “We’re looking to handle this by communication rather than by citation.”

When Wolf first announced his order last week, there were some concerns that law enforcement had been given little advance notice. Sicilia noted that local forces have been quick to devise enforcement guidelines.

“This all just came down,” he said of Wolf’s order. “I personally found out about this watching the 6 o’clock news last week.”

Sicilia said he has since received guidance primarily from the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.

He added that it is more practical to respond to complaints, rather than patrol to see if businesses close, partly because police also must tend to other pressing matters.

“Emergencies don’t stop," Sicilia said. "Even if we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we still have our 911 calls that need addressing, and that’s why we’re taking more of the reactive approach [where] we’re receiving calls" rather than seeking out non-compliant businesses.

In instances where a business refuses to follow the shutdown policy, the police chief said, his officers will report it to the state but won’t shut it down themselves.

“Our officers are deeply ingrained in this community,” he said. “We shop at these businesses professionally and personally. The last thing we want is a confrontational relationship with businesses in our area. So we’re trying to work with them.”

Sicilia noted that his department has received a few calls about businesses that have remained open, but he said the firms were all considered life-sustaining under the governor’s order.

Non-essential businesses that don’t follow the order could lose disaster relief, state funding, or operating licenses.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.