Life along state borders is complicated with travel restrictions

As states attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus, some have closed their borders, ordered self-quarantines for travelers and restricted lodging.

The threat of travelers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where COVID-19 cases are surging, was so real that governors of Mid-Atlantic states took action.

The rising number of cases and the executive and emergency orders that followed have no doubt altered daily routines on Delmarva — especially for those living in border towns.

Ocean City, Maryland, Chincoteague, Virginia, and Delaware beach towns placed limits on and pleaded with vacationers and second homeowners from bringing the virus with them, taxing rural hospital systems. Delaware State Police and Rehoboth Beach police are stopping cars to try to dissuade travel.

The Delmarva Peninsula’s geography — consisting of most of Delaware; nine counties on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; and two counties on the Eastern Shore of Virginia — place state lines so close that, on a map, it looks like it could be a single state.

Residents under normal circumstances routinely travel between the three states — even in a single day — for work, play and shopping. But with hard lines drawn by executive orders, life has changed.

Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and John Carney of Delaware have both taken a hard line, ordering residents to stay at home unless for essential purposes and imposing self-quarantines for out-of-state travelers. Virginia is under a stay-at-home order.

Cases on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where testing is scarce, have not increased as rapidly as they have in the national capital region but continue to rise.

Sussex County — the southernmost of Delaware’s three counties — has more cases than its neighboring counties in Maryland, rising each day. The Delmarva Peninsula had more than 1,000 cases as of April 17. And a predicted surge weighs on nearly everyone’s minds.

Residents near borders navigate restrictions

Route 13 stretches from Florida to Maine. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the highway typically provides easy passage through the tri-state region.

Some who live near state lines along the Route 13 corridor express worry and confusion about restrictions.

Sharon Schaffer, who lives about 18 minutes south of Delaware in Ocean Pines, Maryland, noted that she was concerned by Delaware travelers in Maryland, despite travel restrictions. She would prefer people not travel between states for the time being.

“When will people understand this is seriously deadly?” she added.

Fellow Ocean Pines resident Leslie Jefferson described the situation as “terrifying.”

Both expressed frustration because they say they don’t have clarity on what is essential travel. But it seems less in the reading of the orders — it’s frustrations in the what if’s and alterations to everyday life.

Jefferson is an essential worker in Maryland who takes her child to a Virginia day care. While traveling between states, she keeps proof of essential employment and day care business license in her vehicle.

Though Jefferson said she hasn’t been stopped by an officer yet, she fears she could.

“That’s scary,” she said. “Because we aren’t used to feeling like we’re being watched every time we get in the car, it does give me an uneasy feeling.”

Most states enforcing coronavirus travel restrictions allow out-of-state travel for employees whose job must be done onsite at essential businesses. For them, going to work is just routine.

Joanna Durando, who lives in Federalsburg, Maryland, and is an essential employee in Seaford — about 17 minutes away — says she has not experienced anything out of the ordinary.

Her thoughts were echoed by Stephanie Wall, a Berlin, Maryland, resident and home care nurse who travels to parts of southern Delaware for work.

Wall added that she has had “no issues” so far, and that she and other employees were directed to keep proof of essential employment with them, should law enforcement question their travel.

Essential employees are encouraged to have work documentation under stay-at-home orders in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, but they are not required to do so.

Delmar: The little town too big for one state

A man takes a stroll with his young child in the now-desolate streets of downtown Delmar. Kaisha Young

On the Maryland-Delaware border along Route 13, Delmar is a town split by the two states. It has roughly 1,780 Delaware residents and 3,210 on the Maryland side, according to 2017 census data.

Ivan Barkley, chief of the Delmar Police Department, described compliance with stay-at-home orders as mixed.

Barkley noted an influx of people traveling into Delaware to panic shop.

Delmar residents and others living close to the Maryland-Delaware border are accustomed to the benefit of tax-free shopping in Delaware — traveling to save a buck on their buys.

Social media is flooded with people from both states concerned about out-of-state drivers, even posting photos of car license plates.

“Every rental vehicle in the region is pretty much going to have an out-of-state tag; that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dealing with somebody from out of state,” Barkley said.

Carney’s order does not include exceptions for people coming to Delaware to buy groceries. Out-of-state residents should not shop in Delaware under Carney’s order, according to guidance from the Delaware Department of Justice’s website.

Stacey Bennett, who lives in Maryland, said her family has seen law enforcement in Delaware stopping vehicles with out-of-state plates and questioning their travel.

“I did not think they were (supposed) to pull over vehicles unless they were breaking any kind of law,” Bennett said.

Travel between states: How orders are being enforced

While Barkley couldn’t speak to law enforcement at large, he said the Delmar Police Department is not stepping up traffic stops.

“We are not going out stopping cars simply because they have an out-of-state tag,” Barkley said. “Now, if there is a traffic infraction, then we might stop the car — and if we stop the car, we may ask more questions. But again ... I’m not going to have an officer standing at the border, looking at cars to see who is going where.”

Maryland’s state police are taking similar steps, only addressing residency and nonessential travel during other traffic investigations, such as wrecks.

On April 4 and 5, troopers with Delaware State Police conducted checkpoints on state roadways.

“This order authorizes any Delaware law enforcement officer to stop a vehicle driving within the state simply because it is displaying out-of-state tags,” an April 5 news release from the agency states.

Delaware State Police, in the news release, said Carney’s order allows out-of-state travel for only purposes deemed essential. And drivers could be stopped if they have out-of-state license plates.

This may come as a relief to people like Aaron Wilkins, who doesn’t believe others are following state orders.

“There’s people all over the roads,” Wilkins said. “People are packing the essential businesses like they’re not supposed to and not social distancing.”

Jefferson is more skeptical.

“What’s to stop me, for example, from saying ‘Oh, I’m driving here to go pick up my kid,’ when really I’m not? We’re putting a lot of faith in human beings to tell the truth and do the right thing,” she said.

Drivers stopped in Delaware may be questioned about recent travel history, and troopers must inform drivers of the state’s travel restrictions including quarantine requirements.

Exemptions are for those passing through the state, essential employees, travel for health care or those caring for a family member, friend or pet. Violating the order can result in a criminal charge.

Hogan’s stay-at-home order states Maryland residents should not travel outside the state unless “absolutely necessary.” Those who do should self-quarantine for 14 days.

Violating the order can result in a sentence of up to one year, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

Virginia had not issued a requirement for out-of-state travelers to quarantine as of April 17.

When — and how — will this end?

Barkley, the Delmar police chief, said can keeping up with the latest data and restrictions can be overwhelming when the orders change so often.

“My brain is pinging off the walls,” he said. “We, like everybody else, we’re watching the numbers. We’re checking our region.”

The good news? Experts say Maryland could soon move in the right direction. One study projected Maryland peak over the weekend, although cases in the state continued to rise toward the end of last week. That peak will lag for rural areas, there is wide room for error and things are subject to change. But social distancing would need to continue, according to the study.

Hogan said that reopening will be a slow rollout, when appropriate.

Delaware joined a multistate task force to look at when and how to start reopening businesses and relaxing restrictions.

Talk of reopening, however distant, offers hope.

Yet Barkley anticipates lingering effects.

“It’s probably going to change the face of normal even when this is done,” he said. “Because what was normal when we started into this is not going to be the same when we finish.”