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Stark County Sheriff explains reasoning for not enforcing Governor Burgum's mask mandate, others choosing to enforce

NORTH DAKOTA — After weeks of skyrocketing case numbers, and calling mask mandates a media obsession at a press conference, Governor Burgum launched the enforceable mask requirement and capacity restriction late Friday night. Since then, three western North Dakota sheriffs publicly said they will not enforce it. This trend started in Stark County, then the sheriffs in Hettinger and Bowman counties followed suit the same weekend.

Stark County Sheriff Corey Lee made his case in a Facebook video on Saturday, saying in part, "In a nutshell, will not be enforcing mandates."

Online backlash came from hundreds of people, with comments of support peppered in. Sheriff Lee said most of the critics are not from his county. Lee believes the people who are in his jurisdiction support his stance.

"The perception in my video that I'm an anti-masker, or that I'm against this policy, but that's really not the case whatsoever," Lee explained.


Lee said COVID-19 recently took away one of his loved ones.

"I just lost a grandfather last week to COVID and it wasn't a pleasant passing for him," Lee said. "This is a real disease, a virus, an illness if you will. It does affect people negatively. It's out there, as many other things are, and we need to take it seriously."

Governor Burgum's announcement said penalties should only be used in the "most egregious violations." This is how Lee said he is interpreting the mandate, and wants to rely on education over citations. Lee said the reason is he took up an oath to defend the constitution.

When asked if he feels the mask mandate is unconstitutional, he said he has problems with citing the mandate — not recommending people wear masks.

"It is an illness, just like any other illness," Lee said. "We have to do our best to mitigate that and that's what we're going to do. But we're going to keep everyone's rights and freedoms in mind while we're trying to do that."

In Cass County, Sheriff Jesse Jahner said his office will treat this like any other law. He is not refusing to enforce, but wants to focus on education.

"It isn't our goal to be heavy-handed with a citation or anything like that," Jahner said. "We really do want to focus on education and just making sure that everyone understands. But we'll respond to any complaints that we get on it."


Jahner said he is not surprised by the mandate, saying he's been expecting it for a while.

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