Amid outbreak, police prepare, patrol and continue to show up
ALPENA — It’s impossible to stay six feet away from someone sitting in the back seat of your car.
Coronavirus-related restrictions are in place, but police officers — part of the “essential workforce” now receiving child care assistance by the state in recognition of their importance — still have to get up close and personal as they help at a crash site, apply handcuffs, or transport a coughing community member in the back of their squad car.
“We can’t close up shop,” said 1st Lt. John Grimshaw, commander of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post.
There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Northeast Michigan. The statewide tally topped 300, with three confirmed deaths.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 46 tests had been administered in Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, Presque Isle, and Cheboygan counties, 10 of which have been confirmed negative.
As law enforcement takes steps to stay safe while charged with the safety of others, the coronavirus continued to create change in the area:
∫ District Health Department No. 4 received a shipment from the national stockpile of personal protective equipment that Denise Bryan, administrative health officer for the department, called “very disappointing” — not enough to supply even one of the region’s hospitals. Another order for supplies is being placed, Bryan said.
∫ Parents who are part of the essential workforce can receive help finding child care by visiting helpmegrow-mi.org/essential. A form on the website gathers basic information, including shift hours and days, which will be routed to someone in the community who can help make connections to appropriate child care. Licensed child care providers have until today to report their willingness to open to essential workforce families by visiting surveymonkey.com/r/childcare-covid-response.
∫ Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to help small businesses affected by the virus through loans and other means.
∫ Alpena Community College closed its Alpena and Oscoda campuses.
∫ Alpena County announced its Veterans Affairs and Michigan State University Extension offices were closed to the public.
∫ Meijer announced that all of its stores, including the one in Alpena, would close from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. to allow for restocking and cleaning, but would open from 7 to 8 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays for seniors and customers with chronic health issues to shop and 7 to 8 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays for medical workers, first responders, and law enforcement. The 24-hour, pay-at-the pump feature will continue.
∫ The May 21 MiCareerQuest Northeast student job fair in Onaway has been canceled.
While the virus may keep many people inside their homes, crimes and crashes still happen, and the community still needs police to report to duty, Grimshaw said.
The officers at the Alpena Post wear gloves and have masks to use if they encounter someone showing signs of infection. Despite precautions, though, officers are still vulnerable because they need to be among the public.
“We can’t keep them safe, honesty,” Grimshaw said.
In the case of an arrestable offense, officers may choose to issue a citation instead of making an arrest to limit personal contact and the number of people added to the jail population, Grimshaw said.
If someone with whom they’ve come into contact tests positive, patrol cars will be decontaminated and troopers will be tested, according to the post commander.
Meanwhile, Grimshaw said, troopers keep coming to work.
“They all know what the job is,” Grimshaw said.
“We’re all learning to live a different way of life, literally hour by hour,” said Lt. Eric Hamp, of the Alpena Police Department.
The APD lobby, usually busy with a steady stream of visitors, is off-limits except for emergencies, Hamp said.
Where officers would typically knock on a door if someone calls asking for police help, they will use the phone to follow up as often as possible. When an officer’s presence is needed, they’ll be there, Hamp said — with gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks, if there’s time to put them on.
“We’re not always afforded that time,” he added.
As permitted gathering sizes dwindle, patrol officers said the number of cars on the streets and people on the sidewalk Wednesday felt more like a quiet weekend than a usually busy weekday.
“You could definitely notice that something was different,” Hamp said.
So far, he said, businesses, organizations, and individuals seem to be heeding the call to close, cancel, and stay home. If they didn’t, it would be law enforcement’s job to step in.
“It’s very strange to see the chairs on the tables,” Hamp said. “It’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime.”
Radio traffic, too, is slowed down, said Undersheriff Erik Smith of the Alpena County Sheriff’s Office.
On St. Patrick’s day, with all the bars closed, arrests for drunken driving were non-existent, he said.
The lobby of the county building is closed to all but the most essential services. Officers are still on the road, on the lookout for symptoms of coronavirus in the people with whom they come into contact, and standing back at traffic stops as much as possible.
“Be careful, and life goes on,” Smith said.
No police dropoffs at the Alpena County Jail have shown symptoms of the virus, yet, according to Jail Administrator Scott Gagnon. Screenings take place before the arrested person is allowed out of the police vehicle.
If symptoms are present, the arrestee will have to be cleared by a hospital before being lodged.
In many ways, a jail is like a nursing home, Gagnon said. The inmates — who can’t leave — depend completely on corrections officers for their care. They can’t reliably stay six feet apart or practice social isolation.
If a corrections officer gets sick, the impact is huge, especially at the perennially understaffed jail, Gagnon said. People are depending on the officers to provide medicine, bring their meals, and tend to all basic care needs.
Gagnon visited each jail cell Wednesday, discussing the situation with inmates — who, he said, were confused and fearful about the virus. All jail programs, such as religious services, classes, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, have been suspended.
“We’re not doing a lot to rehabilitate people, by any means,” Gagnon said.
News staff writers Steve Schulwitz and Crystal Nelson contributed to this report. Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.
Call ahead before going out
Efforts to slow or prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Michigan has prompted the cancellation or postponement of several events, the closure of several businesses, the suspension of several services, and further restrictions. Before going out, call ahead to find out if the place you intend to visit has been affected.
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus, call the hospital before visiting the emergency room to get instructions.
More information is available at michigan.gov/coronavirus or by calling 888-535-6136.
Find the latest on the virus’ impact in Northeast Michigan at TheAlpenaNews.com/news/coronavirus.