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Sheriff defends statement on masks

Sheriff defends statement on masks Sheriff defends statement on masks

Sheriff’s department won’t enforce governor’s order, but other agencies may

A mask mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers last week has become yet another polarizing political point in efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

On July 30, Taylor County sheriff Larry Woebbeking posted a statement on social media that the sheriff’s department would be exercising its discretionary authority and would not participate in enforcement of the governor’s executive order.

Woebbeking defended that decision during an interview on Monday saying it had more to do with practical considerations than politics. He explained that the decision-making process was not reached lightly and was made after communication with many citizens and business owners concerned about the governor’s order.

“I don’t take this lightly,” Woebbeking said. “I felt that I had a good handle on what the majority of Taylor County would want me to do.”

Woebbeking said that he feels he was elected to speak for the majority of the people in the county, noting that people had voted for him putting their faith in him to make hard decisions. Woebbeking said the decision was made slightly easier by knowing through previous communications with other sheriffs around the state that there would be numerous sheriffs issuing the statements. “I knew the vast majority of sheriffs were going to do this already,” he said.

That said, he noted the decision to issue the statement had him second guessing. “I didn’t sleep that night,” he said.

Prior to making the statement, Woebbeking said he consulted with other department heads including the health department to let them know it was coming. “I didn’t want to blindside anyone,” he said.

Woebbeking said he wanted to make clear that while the department will not be participating in mask enforcement, if it got into trespassing or people acting belligerent or in not acting peaceably in public, deputies would be quick to respond.

He also clarified that while his statement said the deputies would not be participating, this is not to say there wouldn’t be enforcement in Taylor County. He said such enforcement action could come through the health department or the district attorney. He said there is work being done to set up a process for people to file online complaints about mask violations which could be investigated by those agencies. He said the sheriff’s department enjoys a strong working relationship with the health department and other county agencies and that through the COVID-19 pandemic, his respect for health department personnel has only grown. “The streets on their shoulders is enormous,” Woebbeking said.

According to Woebbeking, the driving force behind issuing the statement had to do with a practical understanding of the limited resources the sheriff’s department has at its disposal. Typically, the county has two road deputies on at any time covering an area of about 1,000 square miles and generally there is only one dispatcher on duty at a time. Woebbeking expressed concern of the department being flooded with mask complaints similar to the complaints they received during the safer at home order last spring. “This could be overwhelming,” Woebbeking said.

He suggested a scenario where a deputy is dealing with a mask complaint while an injury accident or other incident occurred elsewhere delaying the response time and potentially costing lives.

Woebbeking also looked to the language of the order, which states that it “may” be enforced by local governments. He noted this is different than saying local government must enforce it.

Woebbeking said the county government and his department continue to take the virus seriously. “We know the virus is here,” he said, noting they have had employees tested for possible infection and that they have protocols in place to react if a deputy tests positive.

Woebbeking said he has drawn some criticism for his actions in issuing the statement, but says he feels that he was making the decision that is supported by a majority of people in Taylor County.