Coronavirus has people calling the police and shaming neighbors on social media

People across Tampa Bay are now watching each other. Is that healthy?
Pinellas County Sheriff deputies stand guard near Gandy Beach as on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in Tampa. Last weekend dozens of vehicles flocked to the beach despite the safer at home order.
Pinellas County Sheriff deputies stand guard near Gandy Beach as on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in Tampa. Last weekend dozens of vehicles flocked to the beach despite the safer at home order. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 7, 2020|Updated Apr. 8, 2020

Hillsborough County deputies arrived at the house in the Lake Magdalene area Friday night to find a crowd of 15 gathered around the wrestling ring in the front yard. Some were wearing costumes.

The deputies explained Florida’s stay-at-home order and the crowd dispersed, apparently before the main event.

People made hundreds of calls to law enforcement agencies across Tampa Bay over the past two weeks to complain about neighbors not following stay-at-home orders, at least as they saw it.

Often the officers arrived to find nothing enforceable going on. Sometimes the offenders had already left, and sometimes there was no offense to begin with. Other times they found clear violations, explained the issue, and people listened. Very few got more than a warning.

In Pinellas County, for instance, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said last week that arrests in general are way down.

What is clear is that people across Tampa Bay are watching each other in ways that range from vigilant to possibly obsessive.

Among the 184 non-compliance complaints the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received from March 27 to April 5 were reports of weddings, sandlot football games and pool parties at apartment complexes with dozens of people. Residents called about church services with 10 worshipers, and others with more than 50.

Someone called because they saw 50 motorcycles gathered near a McDonald’s, but also because there were three cars they didn’t recognize in a neighbor’s driveway. They called because a friend “checked in” on Facebook at a nightclub on Gunn Highway and, according to a summary of one call to the Hillsborough sheriff, because of a “neighbor walking around outside not following quarantine while roommate posts nude pics at closed state parks."

They called the police on homeless people standing outside a Mobil in Gibsonton, and because they saw people shake hands at Petrol Mart in Thonotosassa. Someone called the cops on a Michael’s craft store for being open, and on employees at a jewelry store on Dale Mabry not standing six feet apart. Someone called about a lone man selling flowers on the side of the road. Another said that a neighbor had opened his home gym up to the neighborhood.

But it was more than law enforcement. People sent to tips to the Tampa Bay Times about people playing basketball, and what they thought were too many people at a boat ramp.

People took pictures of pickleball games in St. Petersburg parks, and peered through the bushes in Gulfport to snap a covert photo of their neighbors’ visitors. They took myriad photos of people walking Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.

One St. Pete man posted a night-vision security video on YouTube of what appeared to be three teenage girls playfully cutting through his back yard. He noted they were not social distancing.

The images appeared in neighborhood Facebook groups, on Twitter and on Nextdoor. The captions ranged from friendly calls to please be safe to full-on shaming and name calling. Then the commenters debated, sometimes over hours that stretched into days. Others posted hashtags like #staythef--khome and #stayhomeidiots over and over.

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In a Facebook group for Gulfport residents, one member Photoshopped a swastika flag onto the cute, pastel bungalow of another resident. They were trying to compare people telling on their neighbors for poor social distancing habits to those who turned their neighbors in to the Gestapo during World War II.

Related: Pinellas sheriff sifting through complaints to figure out what businesses are 'essential'

Law enforcement took its own photos and videos.

Gualtieri said Monday that the Pinellas sheriff’s COVID-19 call center at (727) 582-TIPS received about 300 calls per day since opening with 18 deputies staffing it. Of the first 460 calls, the sheriff said deputies responded to 267 of them and found violations at 49, around 11 percent.

“I’ve had the helicopter up, and the airplane up, at least twice a day,” Gualtieri told the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners on April 2, before playing a compilation video of aerial shots of mostly empty beaches, and dozens of boaters partying at a John’s Pass sandbar. He said compliance was quickly improving in those places as deputies got the word out.

He displayed a photo of a crowd at the pier in Dunedin, saying that while it may have been “bad optics,” it was families staying six feet apart from other families. He said that Philippe Park had been crowded, but the closest groups were found to be 30 feet apart, and the largest group was nine people, all from one household. Not a violation.

“So you’ve got to keep all this in perspective,” he told the commissioners.

Tampa Police received five calls about non-compliance over the past weekend, and 11 the weekend prior. St. Petersburg Police received about 68 such calls the weekend of March 28. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office could find only five instances of people calling about possible violations since Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ordered Floridians to stay home on April 1.

St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said that often officers arrive to calls about people gathering in public and discover that it’s a large family who lives in one house.

Still, “If people think something is wrong, they should always call,” Fernandez said. “We don’t want to arrest anyone, but we will if we have to.”

She said city employees who usually work inside recreation centers are riding around the parks on golf carts, watching.

As for people having guests at their homes, Gualtieri noted that the stay-at-home order allows for leaving the house to “assist” family and friends, but if “everybody’s drinking beer, and it’s just like any old weekend ... You can’t do that.”

Gualtieri was asked during a Q&A on Monday what he’d say to people labeling tipsters as “snitches.” “You can call it what you want, but we need help, as we always do,” he said.

Those who’ve become totally preoccupied with their neighbor’s movements, or are spending lots of time railing on social media against people gathered in the park, aren’t helping their own long-term mental health, experts said.

Related: St. Pete 'happiness coach' describes terrifying journey home from paradise

“When people are in fight or flight, how interesting that we each become the enemy, and the virus the weapon,” said Ann Witt, a licensed mental health counselor and a doctor in health psychology in Tampa. She specializes in anxiety-related disorders.

Witt said while those neighbor-shaming behaviors might provide a feel-good dopamine hit in the moment and an immediate sense of perceived control, they may do more harm than good.

“It would be the same if someone feels better by having five drinks after work,” she said. “It might make them feel better for a while, but it’s maladaptive. It’s not sustainable. But they feel justified, because in their mind they’re going to save everyone on the block.”

Witt acknowledged there’s a fine line, and that people shouldn’t be discouraged from calling the police about serious violations. She suggested people “check in” with themselves, and “see if they’re reacting on a fear-based level.”

“I’d maybe ask myself the following: ‘If I look at the three feet around me, which is all I can control, is there anything threatening my ability right this second to protect myself’ or ‘What’s the likelihood that what they’re doing could hurt me at this moment?’ If the answer is ‘nothing,’ maybe I should step away. If I wait two hours and another five people have shown up, then maybe I can respond and ask the police, ‘Is this okay?

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