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How law enforcement has handled the ban on large gatherings in wake of Dahlonega party
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Trash is strewn across the parking lot of University Heights housing in Dahlonega on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. News of a large weekend party at the off-campus complex spread across social media as the University of North Georgia prepared for its first day of class Monday. - photo by Jacob Smith

When called to enforce the executive order banning large gatherings, law enforcement has generally stuck to two tenets: A lack of zeal to write citations and a deference to other executive agencies to make the call.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Saturday, Aug. 15, extending the shelter-in-place order  for the medically fragile and the ban on large gatherings  amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people in a single location if attendees are within 6 feet of one another.

At a press conference Wednesday, Aug. 19, at the state Capitol, Kemp reiterated the “Four Things for Four Weeks” initiative to stop COVID-19, originally announced July 21. The four actions were wearing a mask in public, practicing 6 feet of physical distancing, washing hands and following the executive order.

“We have a gatherings ban. Do we have anybody enforcing that at the local level?” Kemp asked. “That would be a good question for the press to ask. We are doing all we can with our law enforcement to protect lives and property all across this state right now, and we can’t be every city’s police agency. I would urge them to enforce the regulations, especially on the gatherings ban, on social distancing and whatever else that’s in our orders or orders that they are now doing.”

Between the Gainesville Police and Hall County Sheriff’s Office, no citations have been issued in connection to the gatherings ban since April. 

Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard said he sent video footage his department has obtained of the Aug. 15 Dahlonega party  near the University of North Georgia to the state health department to determine if citations can be issued.

“They are going to reach back out to me and tell me if we can do citations,” Jarrard told The Times earlier this week. “Naturally, at that point, it would be being able to track down who it was that initiated the party and things of that nature about writing them a citation.”

Roach said Wednesday, Aug. 19, the matter was now being researched in the local solicitor’s office and district attorney’s office.

Jarrard posted a video on the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page Thursday, Aug. 20, responding to concerns including why the Sheriff’s Office did not do more to intervene at the party.

"We were limited to what we can do on private property, which is great,” Jarrard said. “Don't misread me in that. I'm not trying to do more on private property."

Jarrard said the Sheriff’s Office has also reached out to Georgia State Patrol and UNG Police. The agencies have strategized on what they’ll do if this happens again, which may involve charges under state laws.

"We were trying to go under the public health order, but it doesn't look like that would work,” he said. “So we're going to have to go under some state laws, so my encouragement to the young youths of the college is to adhere to the state laws and to not be gathering at locations that could cause potential problems, because we will have to do some enforcement."

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Trash is strewn across the parking lot of University Heights housing in Dahlonega on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. News of a large weekend party at the off-campus complex spread across social media as the University of North Georgia prepared for its first day of class Monday. - photo by Jacob Smith

University officials said they were “disappointed” that many of their students attended and ignored COVID-19 public health guidance. 

“The University of North Georgia continues to emphasize to our students and university community that everyone has an individual responsibility both on and off campus to follow guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to prevent the spread of the virus,” UNG spokeswoman Sylvia Carson wrote in a previous email to The Times.

District 2 Public Health spokesman Dave Palmer said the sheriff’s office was referred to Kemp’s office for guidance on this issue.

“Determining when to issue citations for not observing any part of the governor’s executive order would be a function of law enforcement with guidance from the governor’s office,” Palmer wrote in an email.

Cody Hall, Kemp’s press secretary, said the executive order has been enforceable since April, though the office did not have any statistics on citations pursuant to the order.

“To my knowledge, we have not provided any guidance, nor have we been asked to,” Hall wrote in an email. “However, guidance from our office would not be needed because the executive order clearly lays out the guidance and enforcement powers.”

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark McKinnon said there has only been one incident in the entire state in which game wardens gave a citation. 

When encountering groups of people violating the large gatherings ban or not being socially distant, game wardens are asking groups to disperse.

In one case, however, a group gathered in April at Tallulah Gorge State Park in an area closed to the public, McKinnon said.

One of the group’s members “blew in the game warden’s face” while being questioned and resisted arrest, McKinnon said.

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Students return to class Aug. 17, 2020, at the University of North Georgia's Dahlonega campus on the first day of the fall semester. - photo by Jacob Smith

“If a person refuses to comply, they are warned that failure to comply may result in a citation and possibly an arrest with a reckless conduct charge,” McKinnon wrote in an email. “Arrest is a last resort.”

Gainesville Police Cpl. Jessica Van said any crowds police have known about “fell within the exemptions of the order,” meaning people were following social distancing protocols. 

“Should we receive a call for service for this, we would focus on educating the public, similar to what we have done in the recent weeks,” Van wrote in an email.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derreck Booth said the guidance for deputies on this ban has not changed since April.

When the first executive orders were put in place, the Sheriff’s Office said it was taking a “common-sense and educational approach” and prioritizing “education over citation.”

“For instance, if deputies see a group of (10) or more people gathering in public and ignoring the order, they will politely tell them to disperse for their own safety and that of others,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. “Deputies are also taking the opportunity to educate and inform people they come across about CDC guidelines and social distancing.” 

Some public events and church gatherings have resumed in person while trying to follow social distancing rules and adhering to the CDC’s recommendations.

Around 300 people attended Choices Care Pregnancy Center's annual fundraising gala Tuesday, Aug. 18, at Christ Place Church in Oakwood. The event was socially distanced inside the church's 2,000-person capacity auditorium and was also live-streamed.  

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Around 300 people attended Choices Care Pregnancy Center's annual fundraising gala Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at Christ Place Church in Oakwood. The event was socially distanced inside the church's 2,000-person capacity auditorium and was also live-streamed.

Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch created a printable guide for attending in-person mass, which include wearing facemasks, refraining from handshakes and hugs as well as washing hands regularly.

They are also asking people to RSVP online, with the online form closing on noon Thursday for weekend masses. Seating is limited to 200 people.

Lakewood Baptist also has put similar social distancing guidelines on its website.

“For all in person services, we will continue to be serious about social distancing and will take every precaution possible to provide a clean and safe environment,” according to the church’s website.

Beyond the reports of students partying across the U.S. and colleges resuming classes, law enforcement has also been called on to control large protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others.

Floyd was killed in late May during an encounter with Minneapolis Police, which was caught on video. The widely circulated footage showed an officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Regarding the legality of these executive orders limiting social gatherings, UNG professor Douglas Young said he feels the backdrop of a COVID-19 pandemic will allow lockdown orders to hold up in court. Young cited incidents during wartime when presidents have censored the press and incarcerated citizens without trial, which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as an emergency executive power.  

“I think it would make some really interesting cases,” Young said. “I’d love to see lawsuits filed, and it would be fascinating to read legal opinions to gauge the legal reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court or whatever courts address the issue.”

The political culture in the South, Young said, is “far more respectful” of individual rights and privacy rights compared to other regions in the U.S.

“I absolutely believe that in Georgia, one of the more conservative, traditional states in the union, I think there is a great reluctance on the part of … a really significant share of our law enforcement folks,” Young said. “There’s a great reluctance to want to have to enforce these types of lockdown orders, unless there is open defiance.”

Because this political culture is “hostile towards what a lot of people see as overly intrusive, authoritarian lockdown orders,” Young said it creates an environment where police may be hesitant to enforce.

Elected officials in cities where protests have taken place also may be sympathetic to the causes being redressed, Young said.

Speaking with his friends in law enforcement, Young said his sense of the situation is that there are more pressing criminal matters on their plate than to enforce these orders.

Concerning crowd control, Roach said law enforcement is tasked with trying to deescalate the situation without exacerbating it.

“If you go to a large group gathering like that and it’s just people gathering out in the open, you have to ask yourself: Is this something that I feel like I need to start slapping handcuffs on people and putting them in cars and arresting them for doing whatever?” Roach said. “Is that going to in turn cause large amounts of property damage, large amounts of injury from people running, trying to get away from law enforcement, different things of that nature?”

People drinking will be less steady on their feet and less likely to use good judgment, Roach said.

Reporter Kelsey Podo contributed to this report.

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