Jose Freire Interian was walking his dog near his Key West home when a neighbor began recording him on her cellphone. Hours later, police came knocking on his door with an arrest warrant and whisked Freire and his wife to the county jail.
The charge: violating quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
As a national debate swirls over masks and self-quarantines, communities are grappling over how aggressively they should enforce myriad rules meant to control the spread of the novel strain of coronavirus, which has now infected more than 460,000 in Florida and killed nearly 6,600 of its residents.
“It’s a national debate up until the health department tells you to quarantine, and then there’s no more debate,” Key West City Manager Greg Veliz said Thursday.
“If the law allows someone to be arrested for violating a quarantine order and they continue to thumb their nose at the law — yeah, they should be arrested,” Veliz said.
Intense debate over masks, business closures and social distancing have raged since the start of the outbreak. Arrests have been rare, but there have been occasional flare ups.
In May, a Kentucky woman infected with the virus was arrested while shopping for groceries. Authorities accused her of “wanton endangerment” and “criminal mischief.”
That same month, a coronavirus patient was chased down and arrested in Nashville after being placed under quarantine by public health officials.
In Hawaii last month, 21 travelers were arrested for breaking the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine. None tested positive for the coronavirus.
Veliz said the Florida couple was arrested Wednesday after police received a complaint and a video showing a possible violation of a quarantine order imposed by state public health officials against the couple.
The Keys, a chain of islands fanning westward from Florida’s southern tip, had been closed to tourists and other nonresidents for two months in the spring to keep the virus from spreading. It reopened to visitors in June.
In Florida, a national hot spot for the outbreak, public health officials have urged people to wear masks and keep their distance. But they also have the authority to order those who are infected to self-quarantine.
State officials said Freire Interian and his wife, Yohana Gonzalez, 26, learned they were infected with the virus on July 15, after being tested five days earlier.
They were advised to wear face masks at home, a three-bedroom house the couple shares with at least three other tenants. And they were required to self-isolate for at least 14 days.
But the Florida Department of Health determined them to “present an immediate danger of harm to others” when it was notified that the couple had gone to the grocery story on July 20 while possible still infected. A day later, the agency issued a mandatory quarantine order against the couple.
Police said they received video footage Wednesday showing a possible violation of that order and asked a judge to issue arrest warrants.
Freire Interian and Gonzalez, who were released Thursday after posting bail, expressed disbelief over the misdemeanor charges. They speculated that the arrests were the result of a soured relationship with another tenant.
“I didn’t do anything. I was just walking my dog,” said Freire Interian, 24, who said his pet needed to relieve herself. “It’s not as if I left the house to go shopping.”
While he was walking his dog, he said, he was being recorded by one of his neighbors.
Later in the afternoon, police arrived.
“They knocked on the door real loud. I opened the door. They told me ‘Come on,’ and I asked them, ‘Why?’ I was in shock,” Freire Interian said. “Why am I getting arrested for? It was unfair.”
Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University, said government officials may have compelling reasons to more aggressively enforce public health rules, including requiring people to wear masks in public places — as is required by some jurisdictions, including Key West.
“To the extent that there’s any debate, it’s not really a constitutional and statutory debate. It’s more of a policy debate whether the public health risk is sufficient to warrant” a crackdown on those violating public health laws, Morley said.
“Any general deterrence is always one goal of law enforcement,” he said, noting that the arrests could “encourage other people to comply with the law.”
The Key West couple is expected to face a judge on Aug. 10.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.