Questions for Authorities in Greater Minnesota Over Stay-at-Home Order

The clock on Gov. Tim Walz’s two-week stay-at-home order starts ticking at midnight tonight. But elected officials and law enforcement authorities in rural Minnesota say they’ve already been getting plenty of questions from citizens about how it will work.

The issue dominated the latest virtual meeting of the Martin County Board of Commissioners covered by the Sentinel in Fairmont, including the issue of enforcement.

“As far as the stay-at-home order from the governor, it’s a non-enforceable order, so if people go out to get groceries, pick up medications or go to the doctor, there’s nothing we can do with law enforcement to pull them over, ticket them or anything along those lines,” [County Emergency Management director Abigail Nesbit] said. “This order is in place so that people take this virus seriously. They need to be staying home whenever they can and not going around putting themselves and their community in danger.

But the county prosecutor pointed out that the voluntary aspect of compliance on the part of the public only goes so far.

County Attorney Terry Viesselman weighed in, noting there is a Minnesota law that designates violating the order as a misdemeanor. “So they can be ticketed for violating the order,” he said.

Commissioner Kathy Smith asked Viesselman if people gathering together can be found in violation.

“It means if you went over to your neighbor’s house to have a beer and watch a movie and law enforcement found out, you could all be ticketed,” he replied.

In a Facebook post, Martin County Sheriff Jeff Markquart emphasized the risks of unintentionally spreading the virus, even in rural areas.

Markquart noted that the county has 10 positive COVID-19 cases, and that nine of those 10 are due to community spread. He strongly urged people to limit all non-essential travel.

“What we’re asking for in this stay-at-home order is that we do that: stay at home,” he said. “We’re not asking you not to go out and buy groceries, go to the doctor or essential things. Those things we still want you to do. Just limit the times that you’re going out. Maybe let’s make a list and try to go out and get groceries only once or twice a week.

“Please help us limit the time you’re spending out in the public; that’s where our problem is coming today with our spreading of this. Yesterday we were at eight, today we’re at 10 and I’m hoping that we’re not going up, but we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”

In the end, it largely comes down to continuing the practical things that most of us are already doing under the banner of social  distancing. Good thing because the stay-at-home order leaves room for interpretation in the view of Sheriff Markquart.

“This whole thing is vague, I could say I’m driving west from Fairmont going to Jackson to get my groceries. It doesn’t say I can’t leave the county.

“Over 80 percent of these things that are essential, it’s crazy. I can tell you that we are not going to be very stringent on stopping people just because of the way this is written.”