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Elected officials challenge mask order, health department endorses

Beaufort County Sheriff Ernie Coleman announced Thursday that his office will not enforce North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order mandating the wearing of face masks in public places.

While the executive order does deny law enforcement the authority to cite individuals who choose not to wear face masks in public, businesses can be cited for failing to enforce the rule. Individuals who refuse to leave a business after being denied service for not wearing a mask may also be subject to trespassing charges.

A statement issued by Coleman on Thursday said the BCSO would not enforce the mandate, but did not specify whether the agency would cite businesses or enforce trespassing laws as applied in the executive order. A request for clarification on those two points went unanswered Thursday.

“The Governor’s executive order mandating the wearing of masks will not be enforced by the members of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office,” Coleman wrote. “However, if an individual feels uncomfortable going into an environment where sanitation and social distancing cannot be maintained, by all means use sanitizer and/or wear a mask. Also, common sense should dictate that if you feel any symptoms you should wear a mask for the protection of others or better yet stay home.”

The order, meanwhile, states that “the provisions of this Executive Order shall be enforced by state and local law enforcement officers. … Law enforcement and other public safety and emergency management personnel are strongly encouraged to educate and encourage voluntary compliance with all the provisions of this executive order.”

At the Beaufort County Health Department, Beaufort County Health Director Jim Madson says he foresees a continued increase in cases locally. While the health department continues to recommend wearing a mask in public, the agency has no role in enforcing state mandates, a job which falls to law enforcement. Ultimately, Madson says wearing a face mask does help slow the spread of COVID-19, despite public opposition to the idea.

“(COVID-19) may not be a big deal to you as an individual, but there are probably people in your life that it could become a big deal to,” Madson said. “It’s still a disease that has the potential of affecting people we love and care for. I don’t believe we need to panic about it, but we do need to be concerned and do what we can to prevent the spread. I do believe in personal responsibility, and I would ask everybody to search what responsibility they feel they have for the community as a whole.”

For some, such as N.C. Rep. Keith Kidwell, the governor’s order to wear masks represents a political issue of government overreach. Addressing Cooper directly on his Facebook page, Kidwell said that he won’t be wearing a mask and accused the governor of mishandling the pandemic.

“Governor, in case you haven’t noticed, people are figuring out that you are playing political games with the powers you are exerting on them,” Kidwell wrote. “You closed their churches and businesses and now you seem to think you have the authority to tell all of us perfectly healthy citizens that we have to wear masks. I have fought you from the start because your handling of this has been a disaster. … By the way, I’m not wearing a mask!”

As for the health department, Madson said his team doesn’t view wearing masks as a political issue, but rather a matter of public health.

“In public health, we take care of both sides of the political spectrum,” Madson said. “We try to make sure we provide the best care we can to everybody in this county. We just try to take a non-political stance on political issues and base what we do off of the guidance we’re given by the experts and the expertise of our staff. We have quite a few people here that are able to see the data and make recommendations based off of our discipline and our understanding of infections and outbreaks.”

A list of frequently asked questions about the new executive order can be found here.