Parade Turns to Party, Violating Shutdown Orders

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What started as a socially distanced parade to honor the birthday of a high school senior killed last fall turned into an in-person party of dozens of people in direct violation of stay-at-home orders in West St. Paul on Thursday evening.

Da’Qwan Jones-Morris, a 17-year-old student at Henry Sibley High School, died last November in a shooting on the 100 block of East Annapolis, across the border from West St. Paul. Da’Qwan’s family organized a parade to celebrate what would have been his 18th birthday on Thursday. The plan was to decorate cars and drive around the neighborhood, maintaining the social distancing required during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

But when the parade ended at Oakdale Park in West St. Paul, dozens of people got out of their cars. Students gathered in a huge clump for pictures as they celebrated the life of their friend, ignoring recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to maintain a six-foot distance and wear cloth masks to slow the spread of coronavirus.

While West St. Paul Police and South Metro Fire did participate in the parade, they had left the scene after the parade.

“This gathering was not part of the request as either department understood and was not sanctioned or endorsed by the South Metro Fire or West St. Paul Police Departments,” said a joint press release from West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon and South Metro Fire Chief Mark Juelfs.

Lack of Police Response

Criticism came quickly for West St. Paul Police for not responding to the gathering. But the press release notes a flurry of high priority calls that kept officers from responding to the public gathering, including a suicide attempt, drug overdose, theft, and a violation of a protection order.

“Yes, the gathering was dangerous, however, not immediately dangerous as many other calls were,” the release noted.

How Police Enforce Pandemic Orders

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has directed all police departments to enforce stay-at-home orders as an educational measure only, according to Chief Sturgeon. There won’t be proactive enforcement, but they will respond to complaints.

“Moving forward, please know that any large gatherings are not permitted as per Governor Walz’s executive orders and will be addressed by the West St. Paul Police Department as this one would have, had there been available officers,” the press release noted.

Chief Sturgeon says officers will encourage people to follow the orders, but won’t force the issue. There won’t be arrests or tickets.

The Importance of COVID-19 Response

Social media comments turned into a firestorm of complaints about the gathering, criticism of the complaints as a lack of compassion for the deceased and his family, and anger at the lack of response from the police department.

“I thought it would be a great way to show support to the family and community,” said Chief Sturgeon. “But I feel like I got kicked in the head.”

The CDC guidelines for COVID-19 specifically advise, “Do not gather in groups,” and “Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings,” as part of social distancing requirements. The CDC also warns that it’s possible to spread the virus without being sick or having any symptoms.

This is why social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are in place. People in large gatherings like this can unknowingly spread the disease, potentially endangering themselves and others. These kinds of gatherings undo all the efforts we’ve taken to slow the spread of the virus.

“We thank those that organized and attended the Social Distancing Parade, but did not congregate at the park afterwards,” the press release said. “Please stay safe and make good choices as we continue to navigate this pandemic.”

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