Pandemic to-do list: Wash your hands, sew a mask, search for groceries, take care of loved ones, and … trim the grass?
Alexandria code enforcers, it seems, have decided that policing grass height is an essential function in the midst of a global pandemic. Even as Virginians follow a stay-at-home order, the Alexandria Department of Code Administration, which enforces the city’s municipal code, is still inspecting private property for violations of its weed control laws.
“Tall grass can present its own health hazards, so we don’t want to eliminate inspection,” the city claims on Twitter. “Our staff practice strict physical distancing guidelines while inspecting or leaving notices.”
The public safety assurance does not impress Dan Reynolds, a renter who received a warning from the city on April 3. He says the landlord was supposed to take care of the tiny lawn at his duplex, but hasn’t been able to find an available landscaping crew during the statewide stay-at-home order.
“Is cutting grass really in the ‘essential’ category of activities during this pandemic?” Mr. Reynolds asks. “It makes me think about my hardworking friends back home who were laid off because of the pandemic, while government employees writing grass warnings have job security walking the neighborhood.”
Virginia, Maryland and D.C. together have reported more than 24,000 cases of COVID-19, and Gov. Ralph Northam has urged all Virginians to wear masks in public to slow the spread of the virus. Right now, the last health hazard on people’s minds is the one allegedly caused by tufts of unkempt grass.
Not only is lawn beautification a low priority during a pandemic, but the city’s enforcement of its weed-control laws also means that property owners deemed to be in violation could be hit with hefty fines. According to Alexandria’s municipal code, after property owners receive a notice from the city that their grass is too tall, they must trim the offending greenery.
If they fail to do so, the city may either mow the lawn itself and bill the homeowners or fine them $100. After that, the city can fine homeowners as much as $500 for every day that the grass remains untrimmed.
Alexandria’s lawn audits reflect a nationwide shift away from in-person policing as law enforcement officials follow social distancing guidelines. USA Today reports that, in an effort to limit officers’ interaction with the public, police departments such as those in Baltimore and Montgomery County, Maryland, have drastically decreased police-initiated stops.
For example, officers are no longer making traffic stops unless absolutely necessary. And rather than making arrests (which increases the risk of spreading of COVID-19 among incarcerated persons), the Montgomery County Police Department has turned to issuing citations for minor offenses.
But a trend toward issuing citations, especially for offenses like unkempt grass, tends to distort law enforcement priorities. According to a recent report from the Institute for Justice, an Arlington-based public interest law firm, reliance on these fines and fees shifts the focus of law enforcement toward revenue and away from public health and safety.
Simply put, when governments are missing large sources of revenue, the temptation may be to rely on fines and fees for non-safety-related offenses to make up the difference. In no other time than a pandemic is that more apparent.
At all times, not just during the current pandemic, cities should concern themselves with serious public health and safety matters, and not enforcement for the sake of revenue.
To its credit, Alexandria has suspended certain other regulations to alleviate the financial burden caused by COVID-19 and help facilitate the operation of local businesses.
City officials have already stopped enforcing some parking restrictions and state vehicle inspection requirements. The city has also eased some restaurant regulations to allow more restaurants to deliver prepared food, alcoholic beverages and even grocery items.
Alexandria should likewise stop policing people’s lawns, at least while COVID-19 continues to jeopardize public health and the economy. Alexandrians, just like the rest of the world, have much bigger things to worry about than tall grass. And even after the pandemic has run its course, city officials should seriously consider who they are helping by fining people — who may be suffering financially for years to come — for non-safety-related offenses like unkempt grass.
• Caroline Grace Brothers is a resident of Alexandria and a Constitutional Law Fellow at the Institute for Justice.