North Dakota is facing the worst public health crisis in more than a century — and one of its worst disasters in terms of sheer human misery — and some of the state’s sheriffs are cavalierly shunning their important roles.
It’s an appalling dereliction of duty and sends exactly the wrong message.
The state health officer imposed a statewide mask mandate and Gov. Doug Burgum imposed new capacity limitations on businesses in orders that took effect Nov. 14. The actions were taken as North Dakota continues to lead the nation — and even the world — in per-capita rates of coronavirus infections and deaths.
If ever there were a time for all hands to be on deck, that time is now.
But a handful of sheriffs around North Dakota have let it be known that they will not enforce the mask mandate. Failure to obey the mask mandate order is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense.
When the order was announced, however, Burgum urged law enforcement officers to place a priority on educating people about the importance of wearing masks in public and to reserve citations for the most flagrant violations.
A friendly but firm reminder that the mandate is in effect, with a few words about the need for everyone to do their part in limiting the spread of the highly contagious — and sometimes deadly — virus would go a long way in accomplishing the mandate’s mission.
It’s a common-sense approach. We’ve seen that while local mask mandates have helped prod people into wearing masks, local mandates typically lacked penalties and were easy to ignore by those incapable of placing the health of the vulnerable among us over their own selfish concept of “freedom.”
Enter Cavalier County Sheriff Greg Fetsch, who dismissed issuing citations for mask violations as silly. "Our jails are full already," he said. "Why would we want to try and put somebody in there for not wearing a mask?"
Talk about silly, Sheriff Fetsch. Who ever said anything about jail?
Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Warner said her deputies wouldn’t be issuing citations because "this is a health issue and should not be turned into a criminal issue."
Again, failure to wear a mask is an infraction, not a criminal violation. Wearing a mask in the midst of a deadly pandemic is a civic duty. Failure to do so is a moral crime.
At least Warner said she would have her deputies educate people about the importance of mask wearing. But any law enforcement chief who announces that she will not enforce the mandate is undermining a critical public health tool.
In what universe is it acceptable for law enforcement officers to simply ignore certain statutes? Speed limits aren’t very popular, but failure to enforce them — announcing that they won’t be enforced — would invite carnage on our highways.
Our hospitals are on the verge of being overrun, and our doctors, nurses and other health-care workers are battling exhaustion and risking serious illness as they heroically care for those who are sick during this prolonged pandemic.
Having law enforcement leaders flout the mask mandate is shameful and destructive. They should do their jobs.