Nobody wants to arrest anyone for playing in the park.
But ever since Gov. Tim Walz issued his stay-at-home order, police departments have been receiving reports from residents concerned about soccer matches, basketball games and even couples walking hand-in-hand.
The stay-at-home order took effect at midnight Friday, and before the rainy weekend was over, Edina City Hall had issued a warning to residents: Comply with the order or risk the consequences.
Other cities haven’t been as explicit. But they are asking residents to call police if they see groups gathering in violation of the governor’s order.
“Ideally, in a perfect world, we’d like neighbors to talk to each other, but that doesn’t always happen,” Woodbury police Cmdr. John Altman said. “If you think it’s a problem, give us a call.”
Social distancing and self-isolating are especially tough for Minnesotans ready to be released from seasonal confinement into spring. But the governor’s order allows for a misdemeanor citation for anyone who doesn’t comply. That can mean a fine and potential jail time. Yes, jail.
For now, the focus is on warnings and education.
In Minneapolis parks this week, foot and bike traffic has been heavy. Police will make “every attempt to educate and encourage people to abide by the governor’s order before issuing any citations,” spokesman John Elder said.
No sunshine was needed to draw crowds to Edina’s parks this past weekend, thanks to an abundance of well-maintained artificial grass. “Those fields are in great condition, rain or shine,” City Manager Scott Neal said.
The parks were so popular that many Edina residents called police and posted concerns on social media after seeing large groups in places such as Pamela Park, a zigzagging stretch near 58th Street and S. France Avenue that features batting cages, soccer and football fields, baseball diamonds and a sandlot with metal climbing equipment.
“People were fearful,” Neal said.
While Walz’s order encourages people to get outdoors for exercise, it also advises staying at least 6 feet away from anyone who doesn’t live in your home. That’s hard to do with some outdoor activities. “I don’t think you can stretch it as far as full-contact basketball or soccer,” Neal said.
Neighborhood concerns flowed into police departments and on social media throughout the Twin Cities. Some residents were upset by close-knit gatherings, while others mocked concerns expressed about kids playing.
The directive from the state Department of Public Safety is clear: education over enforcement.
“These are opportunities to talk about why federal, state and local authorities are taking action to slow the spread of COVID-19,” the directive said. “The goal of this executive order is simple: stay home, stay safe, and save lives.”
Neal emphasized that Edina officials are not looking to quash family fun.
“We’re not going to ban a mother and daughter playing basketball or a family throwing a Frisbee around,” he said.
As a general rule, parks and walking paths are open while playground equipment is off limits. Most cities have posted signs indicating the same.
Anoka police Capt. Andy Youngquist said not all complaints merit a response.
“We’re getting reports of people walking down the streets holding hands,” he said. “Well, you’ve got a husband and a wife there.”
When officers do go out on reports of infraction, Altman said they’re “trying to get people to understand they may feel healthy, but they may be unknowingly carrying the virus.” The virus is easily transmitted through touch and air, though details about how that happens aren’t clear.
In the meantime, no one wants to have to write tickets for questionable behavior.
“We’re in unprecedented territory here, so trying to put a line in the sand is too difficult to do,” Neal said.