LA GRANDE — Eastern Oregon sheriff’s offices reaffirmed they would not enforce the mask mandates Gov. Kate Brown set in place. As well, a number of sheriffs across Eastern Oregon, including in Baker and Union counties, have addressed the matter in letters to the governor stating they will not be enforcing any mask mandates.
But the governor never asked them to do so.
The enforcement of mask mandates falls under the supervision of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not local law enforcement, according to the governor’s office.
“The mandates don’t provide authority to me to do anything,” Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said in a previous interview with the East Oregonian.
There is one exception — the sheriffs said they would continue to handle issues of trespassing wherein a patron of a business refuses to wear a mask after being asked to by the business — but that is the ultimate extent to which the law enforcement agencies have said they would intervene.
“Business and property owners have a right to set ground rules for how people behave in their businesses,” Morrow County Sheriff Ken Matlack said. “When a person becomes disruptive because of this issue, in that situation, it’s not really a mask mandate. It becomes an issue of trespassing or harassment, and we would get involved in those situations as a matter of law.”
The first sheriff to pen a letter opposing the new mask mandate was Union County Sheriff Cody Bowen, who took office at the beginning of 2021.
“I believe that as Americans, we have a right to choose,” Bowen said in a previous interview. “This isn’t a law, and it hasn’t been voted on by the people.”
Bowen’s letter urged residents to “stand up” against the rules passed down amid the worst surge of COVID-19 infections in Eastern Oregon and across the state, owing largely to the delta variant and far surpassing previous infection rates, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
Chorus against masking up grows
Bowen told The Observer on Sept. 1, that when the mask mandate arrived in Union County, he had felt a personal responsibility to respond against it — for himself and for the majority of Union County residents — so he penned the letter addressing the governor and sent it via registered mail to her office.
“We haven’t really had a voice in this. It’s not really our fight, if you will. And then when it became the homefront of our children, and my own child in school having to wear masks, it put that fight right in my living room,” Bowen said. “I wanted to stand up and be a voice and let folks know that I supported the majority of Union County residents — the strong majority of Union County residents — that it should be an individual’s choice and we shouldn’t be masking our children.”
Soon after, nearly a dozen sheriffs across the state — including those in Douglas, Lake, Malheur, Columbia and Tillamook counties — joined in a cacophony of open letters stating their offices would not enforce mask mandates even though no government agency asked them to do so.
“I’ve not had any contacts with the governor’s office asking us to do anything. We’ve not had any requests or demands,” Matlack said.
Matlack emphasized he is asking his officers to mask up and sanitize while at work and properly adhere to guidelines set by the OHA. Across the nation, COVID-19 was the cause of more than half of all officer line-of-duty related deaths in 2020, according to a study by National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
“It’s actually a civil issue and we play no role in enforcing civil penalties,” Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley said. That’s an OHA rule, so OSHA has the ability to enforce the OHA mask rule. It’s not our role.”
McKinley further said the belief that sheriffs offices would be responsible for enforcement of mask mandates is a “misnomer.”
“What’s great about this country is everybody gets a chance to make a choice, so make your choice,” he said. “If you’re sick, stay home. Don’t make others be exposed. If you’re sick just stay home until you’re better. It’s a health issue, treat it as such.”