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Statement on mask enforcement put businesses in a bad situation

Discretion or dereliction?

On July 30, just hours after Gov. Tony Evers announced a statewide mask order, Taylor County sheriff Larry Woebbeking joined many other sheriffs around the state in announcing his department would not be participating in enforcing the executive order.

“I’m either a hero or a zero,” Woebbeking said in an interview Monday about the letter. As with so many things, the reaction to the announcement was instantly polarizing with many individuals and business owners voicing support for the sheriff while others are equally as vehement in calling for his resignation.

Sheriff Woebbeking is correct in that law enforcement has a degree of discretionary authority in how laws are enforced. The decision-making process allows law enforcement to issue a warning rather than a speeding ticket to the person speeding on his way to work or overlook petty drug infractions in the pursuit of nabbing a major dealer. In every case they are decisions based on experience, understanding of resources available, established standards of the department and the deep interconnection between law enforcement officers and the community.

Where Woebbeking and other sheriffs around the state erred was in publicly announcing they would not enforce the mask rule. In many cases, such as here in Taylor County, the decision had more to do with a practical consideration of resources available than it did with politics. Regardless of intent, the statements were interpreted as sending a political message opposing the mask order and by extension undermining the need to do what is necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.

By making their public announcements, the sheriffs did a disservice to businesses by saying they won’t enforce. This sends a message that people don’t have to comply potentially leading to confrontations as businesses assert their right to control access to their premises. This puts business owners in the middle as they work to ensure their employees remain healthy and their doors remain open. It would have been better for sheriffs to say nothing and use their own discretion when calls come in rather than preemptively assuming all such calls would be nuisance ones.

It is understandable that law enforcement may not have the time or resources to respond to every call. It is also a reality that all calls are not created equal and ones that involve immediate threats to life or property should outrank concerns over a neighbor’s yard being untidy.

That said, these keepers of the peace should not turn away an opportunity to help educate the public about the need for the rules rather than just seeking compliance to them.

COVID-19, like other respiratory illnesses, is spread primarily on the water droplets each of us exhales with every breath we take. Masks help slow down or block these water droplets making transmission more difficult. Steps such as social distancing and wearing masks are an effort to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Stopping the spread of COVID-19 and getting life back to normal as quickly as possible is something everyone should support.