R.I. National Guard, police seek out New Yorkers in Westerly

Teams went “driveway to driveway” to provide face-to-face notification of the state’s 14-day coronavirus quarantine for visitors from the Empire State — a policy that has elicted a lawsuit threat by N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

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With support from the Rhode Island National Guard, local police officers set out on Saturday to identify New York state residents in local neighborhoods and provide face-to-face notification about newly imposed quarantine requirements for visitors from the Empire State.

The operation represented a more residential offshoot of other law enforcement efforts, mostly on the road, that Rhode Island State Police led off on Friday with support from the Guard.

This time, New Yorkers who found refuge in Rhode Island, hoping to dodge the intense coronavirus outbreak raging in their home state, heard doorbells and knocks.

They encountered people in authoritative attire, either police blues or camouflage fatigues, who notified them of a requirement for New Yorkers to immediately go into quarantine for 14 days on arrival in the Ocean State.

In Westerly, no one was arrested or cited. But the historic spectacle of authorities pursuing non-Rhode Islanders, who are now subject to special rules, highlighted the challenges Rhode Island’s public health leaders face in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan for dealing with COVID-19, the potentially lethal health condition, relies heavily on limiting residents’ exposure as the outbreak runs its course. However, people fleeing to Rhode Island from virus hot zones, such as New York City, raise the prospect of greater exposure if those visitors mix with the local population.

In Westerly, six teams went “driveway to driveway” as Westerly police Chief Shawn Lacey put it, to identify cars, SUVs and trucks with New York license plates.

Then the duos, one police officer and one National Guard member, approached whoever was living in the house.

Westerly police Officer Howard Mills and Technical Sgt. William Randall approached a beautifully landscaped house with a yellow-plated Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.

The house is owned by 54-year-old Marc Friezo, a resident of Westchester County, New York. Friezo later told The Providence Journal that he had brought his family to their Westerly house about three weeks ago in the hopes of evading the virus. They also wanted to provide any needed assistance to his mother-in-law, who lives year-round in a Weekapaug cottage, he said.

“It made sense to get out of the epicenter,” added Friezo, who works in Manhattan.

Friezo said he and his family have honored the quarantine through their stay and they don’t plan to go out anywhere.

He lauded Raimondo’s strategy, saying he supports everything that both Raimondo and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are doing in response to the crisis. (On Saturday, Cuomo would make headlines by talking about suing Rhode Island over its policy on New Yorkers.)

Several other people with New York plates were far less talkative. A Florida resident who wouldn’t give his name, but called himself the owner of a waterfront house in Misquamicut, said people living in a neighboring house are renters.

A man came outside the house as one of the teams approached. He refused to give his name. Then he received notification of the quarantine from Westerly police Officer Matt Hayden and Technical Sgt. Timothy Williams of the Guard.

The work kicked off shortly after 1 p.m. in four coastal neighborhoods of Westerly: Watch Hill, Misquamicut, Weekapaug and Shelter Harbor. Lacey estimated that there are more than 1,000 residences in those areas.

Many of the properties are rented.

Beforehand, Lacey said police learned that some New Yorkers had intended to remove the license plates from their vehicles in an effort to evade detection.

Police would also approach homes where they noticed vehicles without any plates on them, he said.

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Lacey worded the operation as an effort to provide New Yorkers with notification regarding quarantine requirements and other information.

“What you’re seeing here is kind of a good example of what we’re going to be doing across the state for the next couple of days,” said Rhode Island National Guard Maj. Dennis Pineault.

On Friday, a spokesman for the Guard, Capt. Mark Incze, stressed that information gathered by Guard personnel will go to the Rhode Island Department of Health. It will not make its way to federal immigration authorities, he said.

Up the coast from Westerly, in Narragansett, Town Manager Jim Tierney worked with real estate records on Saturday. The town has used such records to identify about 300 residences that will soon draw attention from police and Guard members, he said.

Tierney once served as an inspector general for the city of New York. He had absent-mindedly worn a casual sweatshirt with New York Police Department markings on it.

In a store, he said, a buddy had a question for him: “Did you look in the mirror this morning when you put that on?”

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