Any mask mandate could be challenging to enforce
November 11, 2020
COVID-19 infection rates continue to increase in Sweetwater County.
As of Monday evening, Sweetwater County recorded 200 active COVID-19 cases, with another 46 probable, but unconfirmed cases. In Sweetwater County, the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests conducted surpassed 20% during the weekend. As infections continue to increase locally, some have started calling for a mandate to require masks in public places. Bailie Dockter, CEO of Castle Rock Medical Center, asked the Green River City Council to consider a mandate last week.
Dr. Jean Stachon, the county’s health officer, said 20 of the state’s 22 county health officers signed and sent a letter to Gov. Mark Gordon recommending a state-wide mask mandate. She said the officers have a meeting scheduled with Gordon later this week, but isn’t sure if the state would proceed with such a mandate. While Dr. Stachon said she supports countywide mask mandate, she recognizes a number of political hurdles in establishing the mandate.
According to Sweetwater County Attorney Daniel Erramouspe, Dr. Stachon can ask for a countywide mask mandate through the state’s health officer, Dr. Alexia Harrist. If the request is approved by Dr. Harrist, the mandate could be set without involving the Sweetwater County commissioners or city and town councils in the county. While a mandate could be placed, enforcement is another question entirely.
“If a countywide mask mandate is ordered, I don’t believe that it would pose any challenges to my office as we would not prosecute any violations, as I believe such an order is unenforceable,” Erramouspe wrote in an email to the Star.
Tom Jarvie, Green River’s Police Chief, also believes enforcement would be problematic, especially if the city acted on a mandate that was more restrictive than health recommendations already in place.
“It is no secret that Wyomingites are, in general, fiercely independent and bristle at the perception of government overreach,” Jarvie wrote in an email to the Star. “This culture combined with conflicting advice regarding masks early on in the pandemic and misinformation that continues to spread has led to strong resistance by many in our community.”
With the GRPD facing challenges from issues like domestic violence, theft and impaired driving, its ability to proactively enforce a mask mandate is limited and Jarvie said any action taken by officers would have to be supported the prosecutor’s office and local courts, which face their own resource challenges during the pandemic.
He said officers have been called in to assist with issues that have cropped up at local businesses that have required customers to wear masks. Officers in almost all cases were able to explain the reasons behind the health recommendations and the property owners’ rights in what they allow on their property, though Javie said there was one instance of a person becoming “very uncooperative” and being issued a trespass charge being filed against them.
Jarvie said if a mandate is passed at any level of government, the police department would react similarly to how it did when businesses were closed at the start of the pandemic response in Wyoming. Officers will explain the law and the reason behind it, as well as offer other possible options available to them. He said they would also refer possible violations to the county attorney’s office if those orders are continually violated.
“I certainly agree the sharp rise in COVID cases in our county is very concerning and that mask wearing in public places is an important tool in combating the rise in cases,” Jarvie wrote. “I do not believe that issuing citations and/or making arrests will go far in gaining the desired wide spread compliance. I do believe frequent, specific information delivered in a variety of ways to the public will go further. “
Dr. Stachon’s concerns continue to grow with the spread of COVID-19 throughout the county. She said the infection rates visible now reflect actions that took place two or three weeks ago and worries if county residents will have a more somber Thanksgiving holiday as it’s likely the county will have even more people infected, which would likely end up with more people hospitalized.
Ultimately for Jarvie, the most important aspect of the issue is finding a way to reach broad community support for wearing masks.
“Two of Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing are applicable here,” he wrote. “The principles state, ‘The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions,’ and ‘Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.’”
He said without the support of the community, any enforcement efforts could cause people to lose trust in health officials, local officials and the police while doing little in addressing the problem.
In other parts of Wyoming, mask mandates have been initiated. The Wind River Reservation, along with Teton, Laramie and Albany Counties, have initiated mask mandates.