Long arm of the coronavirus law: Crackdown from inspectors, fines, social services reaches deep

In Arlington, Va., you can be fined $100 for being too close to someone on the sidewalk

As the coronavirus pandemic rages, killing nearly 180,000 Americans and counting, states and localities are using a wide array of increasingly severe measures to enforce their coronavirus directives both directly and indirectly related to protecting public health.

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From inspectors enforcing social distancing in restaurants to calls to social services over virtual truancy, there are few aspects of American life that are not touched by government crackdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus and ensuring compliance with related rules.

In measures directly related to keeping the disease curve flat, Michigan has been dealing out hefty fines to businesses that aren't complying with the state's coronavirus guidelines, according to The Detroit News. This includes a $6,300 fine to a gas station where employees were wearing their face masks incorrectly or not at all, did not provide free face masks to its employees, conduct health training or screenings or have a coronavirus response plan.

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Michigan also leveled similar fines on a UPS facility that didn't ensure proper social distancing, among other coronavirus-related violations; a gym that was open despite the government order requiring it to be closed; and a contractor whose employees were not social distancing or wearing masks, according to The Detroit News.

In New York City, Eater New York reported that some bars are having their liquor licenses revoked after only single, vague warnings, and others are voluntarily closing because they are concerned about state liquor inspectors showing up unannounced to ask for proof that customers had ordered food with their alcoholic beverages.

"[W]e were scared of everyone who would show up with a backpack," Will Wyatt, a co-owner of Mister Paradise, a cocktail bar in the East Village, told Eater New York. "People would finish their meals and we wouldn't even clear their tables."

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The New York City Hospitality Alliance said last week that the New York City health department is starting to inspect restaurants as well but the inspectors will be letting restaurants know they are coming in advance. The department is doing away with fines, according to the organization, but restaurants "may be closed as a temporary measure to protect public health" if "hazardous conditions are observed and cannot be corrected before the end of the inspection."

New York is also in the process of setting up an inspection regime for gyms in the city, according to its coronavirus website.

But states and cities are stepping up their enforcement not just of measures meant to protect public health but also some of the initiatives that stem from those measures, like virtual schooling.

The Boston Globe reported earlier this month that social workers have fielded "dozens" of neglect charges against families related to apparent virtual truancy -- children not participating in their remote classes. The paper reported that such calls were largely made against families in poor and minority communities where people sometimes do not have as much access to computers or internet resources as people do in richer neighborhoods.

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"Where we are at with remote learning: well-off families planning pods, low-income families having child-neglect cases opened against them for kids' failure to log on for virtual classes," Alec MacGillis, a ProPublica reporter, commented on the Globe's story.

It's been widely reported that some well-off families are contracting individual teachers to home school selected groups of children, something many have pointed out is yet another example of the coronavirus pandemic having disparate effects on people based on socioeconomic status.

But some school districts, according to an email posted by Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation, are taking a tough stance on families who opt to home school. One principal in the San Diego Unified School District sent an email, posted online by DeAngelis, saying "[f]amilies who have school aged children at home and have not provided the school with an affidavit of proof in an accredited home school program would be subject to investigations from Child Welfare Services."

The email adds: "We really do hope that all families give our public schools a chance to show what we can do! We have wonderful teachers who provide excellent instruction even in an online environment."

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And yet other school districts, for those who choose to participate in online schooling, are requiring parents to sign papers saying they will not listen to their child's classes. The Tennessee Star first reported that Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee was requiring parents to sign such a waiver in order to prevent parents from overhearing confidential information about other kids but after pushback modified the policy to allow parents to watch classes but ban them from recording.

"It's ridiculous. It's so hypocritical because they've been data mining our children for years, compliments of common core," home-schooling activist Laurie Cardoza-Moore said Saturday on "Fox & Friends Weekend."

She added: "We have had a major problem in education, not just here in Tennessee, but across the country where they are indoctrinating our children with propaganda."

The school district responded that its updated guidance says "that parents can assist their children during virtual group lessons with permission of the instructor but should refrain from sharing or recording any information about other students in the classroom."

But the controversy over parents' access to their children's virtual schooling did not start with Rutherford County. A Philadelphia public school teacher, in tweets saved by Daily Wire's Matt Walsh before the teacher made his account private, worried about what "'conservative' parents" being present during virtual schooling would "do to our equality/inclusion work" specifically on "gender/sexuality."

Further, as lockdowns have begun to ease, governments are realizing it's hard to prevent gatherings outside of a place of business. A restaurant, for example, can be held accountable for not enforcing social distancing guidelines. It's harder to enforce such rules against individual people who are standing close to others outdoors in violation of government orders.

In response to crowded sidewalks outside of bars and restaurants in Arlington, Va., in late July, Arlington County banned groups larger than three people and mandated "pedestrians to maintain a physical separation from others of not less than six feet at all times." Violation of the order is punishable by a $100 fine.

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All of this comes as cities are instituting mask fines, mandatory quarantines for those coming from coronavirus hotspots and even shutting down the utilities of people who hold informal gatherings in private homes, all aimed at slowing the coronavirus' spread. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), recently admonished localities for not doing enough to ensure people are complying with coronavirus guidelines in their homes and threatened to "take more restrictive action" if coronavirus cases don't fall soon.

"Officials need to get creative about enforcing rules against large social gatherings," she said, according to OPB. "Too many cases over the summer have come from these informal social get-togethers."

Such an approach could become national as well, depending on the result of the November presidential election.

"I would shut it down; I would listen to the scientists," Democratic nominee Joe Biden told ABC's David Muir in an interview that aired Sunday. "I will be prepared to do whatever it takes to save lives because we cannot get the country moving, until we control the virus."

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Fox News' Caleb Parke and Lucas Manfredi contributed to this report.