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Clark County faces enforcement gap for mask order in Washington

Face coverings went from being a recommendation to a requirement last week following Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide order to wear masks in all indoor, public spaces and outdoors when physical distancing isn’t possible.

The mandate is intended to help curb the spread of COVID-19, but restaurants, retailers, law enforcement and other government agencies have all grappled with a thorny question over the past week: How will it be enforced, and who has the job of enforcing it?

The answer may well be no one.

A number of local law enforcement agencies said officers shouldn’t be required to enforce face coverings, social distancing, business restrictions, and previously, the stay-at-home order.

Restaurants and some retailers have been quick to put up signs reminding customers about the new requirement. But if a customer refuses to wear a mask, businesses large and small indicated they are unwilling to risk those situations becoming confrontational.

“We don’t want our employees to have to be the police here,” said Hillary Barbour, director of strategic initiatives for Burgerville. “That puts them in a very difficult situation.”

Cases rising

Clark County — which on Friday applied to enter Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan — saw 40 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, the highest single-day output for the county since the first case was reported in March.

Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick placed the blame on the failure of some to take the risk of COVID-19 seriously and take appropriate precautions.

“My big worry, and what is keeping me up at night as we open up, is that there is less attention paid to physical distancing and face-mask wearing. That, I think, is what is causing our increase,” Melnick said during a Board of Health meeting Wednesday.

Public Health does not have enforcement authority for the governor’s mask order, but it encourages people to wear face coverings while in public to protect the health of others.

COVID-19 is primarily spread via respiratory droplets. When an infected person wears a face covering, it serves as a barrier to block the respiratory droplets from spreading to others when they cough, sneeze or talk. Those who have the virus can spread it even if they feel fine and don’t have any symptoms, according to Public Health.

“It’s very simple. It’s easy,” Clark County Councilor John Blom said of using face coverings. “Yes, it can be a little bit annoying, but when we talk about not wanting to move forward, I think of the businesses that are in limbo right now just wanting to move to Phase 3. I can put on a mask and deal with a little discomfort to help those employees and those businesses who are waiting to be able to get started again.”

Police: Educate, not enforce

The mask order includes everyone 5 and older — though there are exceptions for those eating or drinking at a restaurant, communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, and for people with a medical condition that makes wearing a mask difficult.

Ridgefield Police Chief John Brooks told The Columbian that he thinks there are concerns that police are going to stop people who aren’t wearing a mask and write them a ticket.

“This is not the case,” he said. “We love this community and want our citizens to be safe, but to hand out mask-violation tickets in a hasty manner, without a concern for what it is we are trying to accomplish, would be counterproductive to the goals of the police department serving its community.”

In a written statement, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins argued COVID-19-related mandates are public health, not law enforcement matters.

“We need to move away from our deputies and local law enforcement as the enforcers of the COVID-19 virus guidance,” Atkins said. “These encounters have the potential to quickly escalate tensions between the police and the public. Forcing my deputies to have oversight and enforcement of mask violations creates an untenable situation.”

Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain took the same stance on education over enforcement, saying that although violators could face a misdemeanor, he’d rather have his officers “resolve these matters otherwise.”

Woodland Police Chief Jim Kelly told The Columbian that the message from the governor on enforcement has been “a bit conflicted,” as Inslee has stated, “We don’t want to have enforcement of this.”

Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey told The Columbian that he’s seen “a significant number of people not wearing a face covering in public places (indoors). Outdoors, I see it too, but I generally see the 6-foot distancing, and it is impossible to tell if the people in the group are all family members,” he said.

At Chuck’s Produce in Salmon Creek, assistant store manager Patrick Newman said that staff will offer masks to any customers who come in without them, but if a customer declines, the store will treat it as a medical condition and will not press the issue further.

Newman said the store policy takes its cue from the sheriff’s office’s educational approach.

No 911 calls

On the first day of the order, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency issued a statement imploring people to stop calling 911 and 311 to report noncompliance of face coverings, after receiving a number of complaints.

Eric Frank, a CRESA spokesman, said Wednesday that calls about noncompliance have since decreased.

With the Fourth of July weekend approaching, Frank said, “We’re really focused on getting people … to understand and keeping those numbers open to actual emergencies.”

CRESA was unable to provide the number of complaints it has received related to violators, as there’s no call type to look up. And once callers are directed to the state COVID-19 hotline, it’s difficult to say what type of information they are reporting, Frank said. However, complaints have decreased to about a handful a shift since the order first went into effect, he said.

Customer’s job?

A number of law enforcement agencies referred people to the Washington State Coronavirus Response website, which states that if you see someone not wearing a mask, do nothing.

However, with a perceived lack of support, some businesses are counting on customers to speak up.

Sunny Parsons, owner of Heathen Brewing, said staff at the brewery’s downtown Feral Public House have been gently reminding customers to wear masks, usually by pointing at posted signs.

There’s a public shaming element that works as added encouragement, he said. Customers all have to line up at the bar to order food, so if one person refuses to put on a mask when asked, most of the other customers tend to speak up and side with the staff.

Most people who refuse masks walk out mad, he said, adding, “I’ve never had one stay, let’s put it that way.”

But that’s only a tiny fraction of the customers, Parsons said, and many of the rest have said they’re grateful to see the rules enforced. Heathen has also been able to rely on its fans to defend the policy against criticism on social media, he said.

Even when customers are complying, the policy can still be challenging. Deanna Gaines, owner of Wild Fern Boutique in downtown Vancouver, said she’s posted signs at the entrance to remind people about the rule, but the masks can make it more challenging to interact with customers.

“It’s difficult on all employees who have to provide customer service with a mask on,” she said.


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