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Detroit officials raise curfew possibility as COVID-19 cases, deaths surge

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number of coronavirus cases.

Detroit — City officials are warning of the potential for a citywide curfew and park closures as police ramp up enforcement for groups congregating amid a surge in coronavirus cases that already have claimed 116 lives. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Assistant Police Chief James White implored residents to abide by the state's emergency stay home, stay safe order or they will risk a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

Duggan said the city doesn't have plans for a curfew yet, but said: "If we have to go to a curfew, we will."

But the city plans to increase neighborhood police patrols in parks, conduct flyovers and rely on its crime-fighting Project Green Light camera system to monitor compliance as confirmed cases of coronavirus climbed by more than 700 in 24 hours, rising to a total of 3,572.

"Today, we lost another 19 of our citizens," the mayor said during an afternoon press briefing at Detroit's Eastern Market. "We are going to have to deal far more strictly on enforcing the governor's order on social distancing."

Detroit, a majority black city, has been hit particularly hard as African Americans are being afflicted disproportionately by the coronavirus. As of Friday, at least 40% of those killed by the novel coronavirus in Michigan were black.

Duggan is urging residents to now put on a mask or scarf before going out in public.

"If you are in a group of five or six people, it is almost a mathematical certainty that one of those people in that group has COVID-19," he said. "We've got real issues distancing in our public places."

The mayor cited the grip the virus has had on New York, where 1,500 lives have been lost, and said Detroit could be headed down the same path "if we don't change what we're doing."

"I don't know if we can bend the curve in Detroit," he added. "They failed to do it in New York, and the loss of life is almost unimaginable."

White is subbing for Chief James Craig, who is ill with the virus. White said the police department will be looking for "chronic violators" at city parks and will remove basketball rims to get groups to disperse. 

"We have to sacrifice right now. That sacrifice begins today," he said. "We don't want to do that, but we must take this very seriously."

The city, White said, hopes to not have to close its parks as has been done in New York. But if compliance isn't immediate, it is likely, they said. 

"We're asking the public to support us on this," Duggan added. "But if we're going to continue to have the gathering, we're just not going to have any choice."

In New York, the mayor said Friday, it was easier to close parks than to chase people down and write them tickets. The city has and will issue tickets and "when this is over, we will enforce those tickets." 

Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson said he's supportive of what the mayor and police department deem necessary to get people to embrace "this new normal," even if it ends up being an approach that's "heavier handed."

"People are dying every day. I'm not sure of anybody now who hasn't been touched by this pandemic," he said. "This is a call to action. Comply, stay home, social distance. Do not go outside unless you have to. This too shall pass, but for now, get on board and help everyone."

Duggan's comments come a day after a new emergency order from the director of the state health department that said people in violation of Whitmer’s stay-at-home order and other executive actions could face fines of up to $1,000 and businesses could see licensing penalties.

Prior to the order from MDHHS, violations of any of the Whitmer's edicts were to be treated as misdemeanors punishable by jail time and a $500 criminal fine. That recourse still will be available to prosecutors, but the new order also provides for civil sanctions up to $1,000 civil penalty.

Detroit Councilwoman Janeé Ayers said community members have to step up and hold their relatives accountable to keep them safe.

"There are extreme measures out there that could be tapped into, and we shouldn't have to go there," she said. "Hear us out. Stay home. This is real."

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield added she hopes residents will abide by both federal guidelines and Whitmer's executive order and "take this seriously."

"Whatever we have to do to end it as quickly as possible and keep people in their homes, it's important. It's a pandemic," said Sheffield, whose father, civil rights activist the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, continues to recover from the virus. "If we take this seriously, the quicker we'll be done with this and return to our lives." 

The Rev. Charles Williams II, pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, said its imperative to get young people into jobs that can aid in the battle against the virus, delivering care packages to seniors or helping out hospital staff. 

As the weather breaks, a crackdown in Detroit without school or athletic activities could lead to trouble for youth left without anything else to do, he said. 

"Creating a police presence or militarizing the environment and penalizing individuals will not help us," he said. "As a matter of fact, it could hurt the city of Detroit."

On Thursday, Flint in Genesee County imposed a curfew for its residents to help stem the spread of the virus there. The restrictions are in place from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Trips to grocery stores, banks, gas stations and other essential stops are permitted. The order runs through May 1.

"Being proactive has been our stance," Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley told The News. "We wanted to make sure that we did everything to take people out of the public spaces where they could be impacted negatively by catching or spreading the coronavirus."

Genesee County had 422 reported cases and 11 deaths as of Friday, according to state data.

Detroit, meanwhile, has said it anticipates a continued climb in cases here amid aggressive testing efforts at a regional site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds. 

The mayor has said he expects the site will conduct at least 14,000 tests for COVID-19 over the next six weeks.

Duggan said of the first 1,000 tests at the state fairgrounds, 43% have been positive.

He also said there's an agreement in place to provide Detroiters with prescriptions for testing who are without transportation with a $2 ride to and from the fairgrounds site.

Detroit is among the first in the country to receive rapid-result testing kits and machines for COVID-19 from Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories.

The testing cleared 21 police officers in three hours to return to work. There will be 250 more officers tested in the next few days.

The mayor acknowledged a "double blow" to the city's bus drivers. DDOT driver Jason Hargrove, 50, died this week after being infected with the virus. On Friday, Duggan confirmed that Glenn Tolbert, who heads the bus driver union, is also positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Henry Ford Health System, the mayor said, got confirmation Friday it can proceed with the first large-scale study in the country to find out if a drug used to treat lupus can prevent COVID-19.

The clinical trial planned for hydroxychloroquine would include 3,000 people and the five-hospital medical system wants first responders to volunteer. They hope to soon get approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydroxychloroquine is an FDA-approved arthritis medicine that also can be used to prevent or treat malaria. 

Many area hospitals are treating patients with hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment they hope will lessen the severity of COVID-19 in some patients.

The FDA in late February issued an emergency use authorization for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for treatment of SARS-CoV-2, another name for the disease caused by coronavirus. 

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan reached 12,744 Friday as the death toll jumped to 479.

cferretti@detroitnews.com