As Gov. Roy Cooper’s order requiring face coverings in certain places takes effect, local sheriffs are saying the order cannot be enforced.
On Wednesday, Cooper announced that North Carolina will remain in Safer At Home Phase Two for the next three weeks. He also issued an executive order that requires most people to wear face coverings when in public places where physical distancing is not possible. The order goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.
On Thursday night, the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office posted a statement on Facebook attributed to Sheriff Don Brown saying the office reviewed the order and determined it to be unenforceable.
“We otherwise recognize that this matter, like many facing us, is an emotional issue which has strong opinions on all sides,” Brown said via the statement. “We encourage all citizens to take the precautions they feel are necessary to protect their families and themselves.”
In a follow-up post, Brown said residents should still comply with the order.
In an interview Friday, Sheriff’s Capt. Aaron Turk clarified the sheriff’s office is not making a statement on the legality of the order. Rather, their position is the order cannot be enforced as it is written.
He pointed to a provision in the order explicitly saying that citations cannot be brought against individuals for violations of the order.
The order does specify that businesses or other organizations can be cited for not requiring face coverings.
However, the order also includes a number of exemptions from face coverings, including for individuals who cannot wear masks because of a medical condition or disability.
Individuals do not have to show proof verifying they qualify for an exemption. Also, establishments can defer to visitors or patrons who say they qualify for an exemption without violating the order.
“There’s too many exceptions, too many exemptions,” Turk said. “It’s not enforceable by law enforcement.”
A third enforcement provision in the order says law enforcement can enforce trespassing laws against individuals who are asked to leave
Turk said officers would still respond to trespassing calls and evaluate cases based on the circumstances.
Brown is not the only sheriff in the area who says the order is not enforceable.
Alexander County Sheriff Chris Bowman said his office would continue to respond to trespassing calls the way they usually do but that he will not be issuing citations for violations.
Caldwell County Sheriff Alan Jones said he agreed the order could not be enforced.
The Burke County Sheriff’s Office put out a post Friday saying that officers would not arrest or cite individuals for violations while also saying the office can enforce existing trespassing laws.
Other local law enforcement agencies also weighed in on the order.
In a Facebook post Friday, the Hickory Police Department referenced the portions of the order forbidding criminal penalties for individuals and emphasized the department’s power to enforce trespassing laws.
The post did not address the department’s position toward citations of businesses.
Hickory Maj. Reed Baer said enforcement of that provision would depend on circumstances given the exceptions that exist in that order and other orders issued by the governor.
When asked about his department’s position, Conover Police Chief Eric Loftin gave a statement nearly identical to the one from Hickory concerning enforcement of the order.
Loftin also said residents should take measures to prevent spread of the coronavirus.
Newton Police Chief Vidal Sipe said residents are encouraged to take steps like social distancing and masks, and that his department will at first seek voluntary compliance with the law.
“We’ll do our best to try and enforce whatever it is, but before doing any kind of criminal actions or other enforcements outside of voluntary compliance, yeah, we’ll really look at it on a case-by-case basis,” Sipe said.
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