A week after Akron limited private gatherings, 15 complaints but no fines

Writing and reporting by H.L. Comeriato

Photo by Noor Hindi

On Monday, Nov. 16, Akron City Council voted to approve legislation put forth by Mayor Dan Horrigan that would limit the number of guests allowed at private gatherings and mandate face coverings during gatherings at private homes when guests from separate households are present.

In the first week, the Akron Police Department received 12 complaints of gatherings that violated the order, 10 of which came between Friday and Sunday. 

Summit County Public Health received three additional complaints.

The ordinance’s passage, and its first week on the books, come as people all over the country reevaluate their Thanksgiving plans. While many have decided to stay home or gather virtually, a national survey conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that 40% of Americans still plan on attending a Thanksgiving gathering with more than 10 guests from outside their own households. 

“The surge of cases we’re seeing now is due to the Halloween gatherings at people’s houses we were told about in contact tracing,” said Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda on Nov. 16. “We started to let our guard down. As a result of that, what we started to see is exponential case climb.”

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The Akron Police Department and Summit County Health Department were tasked with enforcing the ordinance for 30 days. Enforcement would be “education-based” and focus on “voluntary compliance,” Skoda said. 

Tonia Burford, environmental health director at Summit County Public Health, said Monday morning that the agency has sent educational materials to three locations that were reported for violating the order, including a home daycare, a private party and a Bible study group exceeding the number of guests allowed from separate households. Burford notes, however, that religious gatherings are exempt from the ordinance.

Burford says no fines had been issued as of Monday morning.

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COVID-19 is ravaging Akron hospitals, health leaders say

Dr. Cliff Deveny, president and CEO of Summa Health, said Nov. 16 that Summa hospitals were nearing capacity, with intensive care units about 90% full. Without strong intervention, Deveny fears they will be forced to ration care in the coming weeks.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended a community positivity rate of 5% or less for a duration of at least 14 days in order to reopen public spaces like restaurants. As of Nov. 17, Deveny and Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital president Brian Harte say their positivity rates are both between 20% and 25%.

“This is getting near the edge of what we’re capable of doing,” Harte told councilmembers. “We opened a second full COVID unit last week and it’s full. We have over 50 staff members at Cleveland Clinic out sick with positive COVID tests.”

“We never want our hospitals to get to the point where they have to choose who gets care for what,” Skoda said. “It will cause a lot of other death and disability for the whole county if we don’t do things differently.”

Margo Sommerville, president of Akron City Council and a licensed funeral director at Sommerville Funeral Services, says she’s seen the effects of COVID-19 in her community firsthand, and that residents need more education-based intervention to help them learn how to gather safely. 

“Extreme times call for extreme measures,” Somerville said on Nov. 16, noting that the ordinance would be reevaluated a month later. 

“It’s a 30-day sacrifice” that may help save lives, she added. 

Ordinance raises concerns about privacy, civil liberties

Not every councilmember supported the new measure. Councilmember Mike Freeman voted against the ordinance, calling it an infringement on constitutional rights. Councilmember Donnie Kammer said he believes police should not be responsible for enforcing the ordinance.

Councilmember Russ Neal also voted no, citing concerns over invasions of privacy and inequitable enforcement. 

Akron resident Gage Gallaher, 27, has some of the same concerns.

There is no doubt the virus is deadly, Gallaher says, but he thinks the city should place more regulations on public gatherings and businesses to help curb the spread of the virus, rather than attempting to regulate how and when Akronites can gather in their own homes.

“There shouldn’t be any regulations on private spaces,” Gallaher says. “My car and my house, that’s private property. Of course [I wear a mask] in public, or when I’m around other people — of course, wash your hands. Be responsible, but don’t tell people what to do in their own homes.”

Gallaher says he’s concerned the city’s new complaint line might lead to targeted, inequitable enforcement of the ordinance.

“You could call on somebody that you don’t like, or your neighbor that’s too loud,” Gallaher says. “You could call on people for all kinds of stuff and say, ‘Hey, they’ve got people with no masks on!’ Especially if you’re a minority or you’re visibly poor, that can create a really dangerous situation for you.”

According to Ellen Nischt, press secretary to the mayor, the ordinance defines “large private gatherings” as having “more than six guests — no matter how big your household is. The key is the number of people coming in from the outside.”

The ordinance was intentionally designed to account for large, multi-generational households. 

But critics of the ordinance are still concerned that large families living in the same household may be targeted for enforcement, along with people of color. In May, ProPublica found that Black Americans were arrested for violating social distancing and stay-at-home orders at far higher rates than white Americans. CNN reported that more than 80% of people ticketed for social distancing violations were people of color. 

So far, the Akron Police Department says the number of complaints has been manageable.

“We did dispatch officers, and for the most part, no violations were observed,” noted APD public information officer Lt. Michael Miller. 

Still, Gallaher worries that sending armed police officers to regulate gatherings could spur hostile, potentially dangerous behavior, putting civilians at risk. The local Fraternal Order of Police has expressed concern about officer safety too.

“This is not intended to be a confrontational interaction between police and citizens,” Nischt said on Nov. 16. Interactions between police and citizens will prioritize education, she added.

Horrigan says the purpose and priority of the ordinance are to save lives by slowing the spread of the virus, allowing hospitals more time to prepare for an influx of new cases.

“A lot of people are making the wrong choice, and it’s having a significant effect on our capacity to care for others,” Horrigan said on Nov. 16. “If this is going to change your daily behavior that much, maybe you aren’t doing enough to curb the spread.”