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What Can Police Do About Large Gatherings In Private Homes?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

During this severe surge in COVID-19 cases in our country right now, many states are cracking down, including strictly limiting the size of gatherings. In Idaho, Massachusetts and New Jersey, you can have up to 10 people in your home. In Iowa, it is 15. The rules are detailed. And there are fines for breaking them of hundreds of dollars. But as NPR's Sally Herships asks, how do you police residents in their private homes?

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: It's hands-in-pockets cold out. And it's already gotten dark. But walk into Brooklyn's Prospect Park across the jogging path and on the field below, you will see tiny lights flashing, parents using their phones to navigate from the sidelines of a soccer game. Like the others there, John Anderson is staying socially distanced while he waits for his 8-year-old son. He supports New York's new rule - no private gatherings of more than 10 people.

Have you had any gatherings in your private?

JOHN ANDERSON: No. We haven't had anybody in my home. And, in fact, Thanksgiving, we just decided today that all the contingency plans are defunct. So nothing's going to happen. Everyone's going to stay home and stay alive.

HERSHIPS: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says when it comes to individual families, the city will not enforce its own rules. But if larger gatherings occur, the mayor says New York City Sheriff's Office will break things up. Yes, that's right. New York City has 154 sheriff's officers. But New York's population is over 8 million. And even someplace smaller, the same question pops up. How do you police people in their own homes?

MICHAEL HANCOCK: Yeah. You know what? It's really people reporting, (laughter) neighbors will report.

HERSHIPS: That's Denver's mayor, Michael Hancock. Generally speaking, if you live in Denver and want to have guests over, right now, you can't. The city says, so far, Denverites have filed 3,000 complaints accusing their fellow residents of breaking the rules. Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment says its investigators have been doing a majority of the enforcement. But Denver doesn't have the resources to police everyone. Instead, Mayor Hancock says the rules are about educating the public.

HANCOCK: We're trying to let people know that this is how the virus is spreading. It's not you going to a gala, because we're not having them, or to a sporting event, because you're not allowed to do that. It's really people doing these smaller gatherings in their homes where they feel a false sense of security.

HERSHIPS: A couple of states over into the north, Idaho is pursuing a similar strategy. Gatherings of more than 10 are prohibited. But law enforcement is prioritizing education over policing. And back east in New York, in the cold, dark park. Dad John Anderson says he also doesn't want to police.

ANDERSON: No, I wouldn't call the police on my neighbors. It can only make things worse.

HERSHIPS: But even if some in New York state were to place a call, a handful of sheriffs have said they won't enforce the rules.

Sally Herships, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.