BISMARCK — Cavalier County Sheriff Greg Fetsch said it is silly to give a person a citation if they are not wearing a mask. Many people are out of work, and if they are unable to pay the citation's fine, they could enter a vicious, fine-paying cycle, he said.
"Our jails are full already," Fetsch said. "Why would we want to try and put somebody in there for not wearing a mask?"
Since interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke signed an order on Friday, Nov. 13, that issued a mask-wearing mandate, county sheriffs' offices have received an inflow of questions about how the mandate will be enforced in their county.
The order issued on Friday states people must wear face coverings in businesses, indoor public places and outdoor public settings where social distancing cannot be maintained, with some exceptions. Gov. Doug Burgum also signed an executive order requiring North Dakota restaurants and bars to limit on-site service to 50% of their normal occupancy.
Some sheriffs have publicly stated they will not enforce or issue citations for the mask mandate or business capacity limits, while others say they will prioritize educating citizens about the governor's mandates and only issue citations in extreme circumstances.
Sheriffs' departments statewide have the discretion to enforce or not enforce penalties against criminal acts, said Steven Morrison, a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law. There are so many rules and laws to enforce that each law enforcement agency has a great deal of discretion to issue punishment against lawbreakers.
"If law enforcement successfully enforced every instance of criminal conduct in society, they would be overwhelmed and we would all be in jail," Morrison said. "The federal and state criminal code are so vast and cover so much that we commit crime all the time."
In a statement, Burgum's spokesperson Mike Nowatzki said the violation of a state health officer's order or a governor's executive order is considered an infraction under North Dakota law.
Nowatzki also said many sheriffs have said they will abide by the governor's orders.
"In speaking with the North Dakota Sheriffs & Deputies Association today (Nov. 16), we’re told that sheriffs generally will be enforcing the orders and following the governor’s guidance," Nowatzki said in a statement.
Billings County Sheriff Patrick Rummel said he thinks the mandates should have come out a long time ago. It's too late for a mandate now, he said, and North Dakota should be prioritizing education over mandates, which is why he will not be enforcing or citing people to get them to comply with the COVID-19 orders.
"I think steps should have been taken all along the way instead of now," Rummel said.
Many sheriffs said they would enforce the mandates on a complaint basis, and they would not have officers patrolling for mask-wearing compliance as they do not have the resources to do so.
In mandating business capacity limits, many sheriffs, like Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner, said they have few worries about local businesses complying with the new regulations, as citizens have been largely cooperative with the COVID-19 orders that have been issued so far.
Jahner said his deputies would be heavily prioritizing education over issuing citations.
"If we get called to a situation where someone is concerned about occupancy or something to do with the mask mandate, our officers will always go an investigate it ... and our deputies will use an educational approach to inform everyone of what the governmental order says and try to resolve the situation that way," Jahner said.
Even though sheriffs and many law enforcement agencies have the discretion to decide when to arrest or cite a citizen for criminal conduct, if an agency was refusing to implement Burgum's mask mandate for political reasons, Morrison said, that would be worrying.
"We really don't want our law enforcement agencies to be political," Morrison said. "We want them to be focused on public safety and not politics."
In a Saturday Facebook post, Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Warner said her officers would not be enforcing the mandates with citations because "this is a health issue and should not be turned into a criminal issue."
Many sheriffs on Monday said it was important people follow the newly implemented orders to protect other citizens from COVID-19.
"You've got to look after people besides yourself," Fetsch said. "People need to think about what's going on and make sure they are socially distanced and wearing masks."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.