SWEETWATER COUNTY — Law enforcement agencies are taking diverging stances on the mask mandate that is in effect in Sweetwater County. The Rock Springs and Green River police chiefs announced their intentions to stand ready to work with the community and enforce the law while the Sweetwater County sheriff and county attorney questioned the order’s validity and said they would not enforce it.
WHAT THE PUBLIC HEALTH ORDER AND STATE STATUTES SAY
Sweetwater County Health Officer Jean Stachon requested the face covering order that State Health Officer Alexia Harrist approved Tuesday. The order cites state statutes governing public health and safety that outline the expectations and powers of health officials.
It says health departments in Wyoming, working in tandem with the state health officer, have the power and responsibilities to “investigate and control the causes of epidemic, endemic, communicable, occupational and other diseases and afflictions, and physical disabilities resulting therefrom, affecting the public health” and “establish, maintain and enforce isolation and quarantine, and in pursuance thereof, and for such purpose only, to exercise such physical control over property and over the persons of the people within this state as the state health officer may find necessary for the protection of the public health.”
The health order states that those who violate the mandate are subject to prosecution under two state statutes.
State statue 35-1-105, which covers prohibited acts and penalties for violations, states “No person, corporation or other organization nor representative thereof shall ... wilfully violate, disobey or disregard the provisions of the public health laws of Wyoming or the terms of any lawful notice, order, rule or regulation issued pursuant thereto.” It includes maximum penalties of a six-month sentence and a $100 fine.
State statue 35-1-106 states, “Any person who shall violate any of the provisions of this act, or any lawful rule or regulation made by the state department of health pursuant to the authority herein granted, or who shall fail or refuse to obey any lawful order issued by any state, county or municipal health officer pursuant to the authority granted in this act shall be deemed guilty of misdemeanor.” It includes a maximum penalty of a one-year sentence and $1,000 fine.
WHAT THE POLICE CHIEFS SAY
Rock Springs Police Chief Dwane J. Pacheco and Green River Police Chief Tom Jarvie issued similar press releases in response to the questions they received regarding enforcement of the recently approved public health order requiring facial coverings in certain conditions.
They said they take the Sweetwater County health order very seriously and thank residents for their willingness to help. They emphasized that the role of peace officers is not to control the communities they serve, but to work in concert with those communities to promote public safety.
“This is a time where banding together as a community is the only answer. Having worked with Dr. Jean Stachon, we know the current order has been issued out of concern for our community and the most vulnerable members of it. Dr. Stachon has stated numerous times she does not wish for anyone to be cited for the violation, but only requests education and compliance,” the release said.
The police chiefs encouraged everyone to consider others at this time.
“Your friends, families, and neighbors may be affected or vulnerable in ways you do not know. We believe the majority of our community will visibly wear face coverings as outlined in the order. We also know some will not be able to wear face coverings for various legitimate and lawfully exempted reasons,” the release stated.
Jarvie and Pacheco concluded by saying the men and women of the Rock Springs Police Department and Green River Police Department “will be diligent in answering all calls for service, including those regarding the failure to wear face coverings. Our officers will utilize the utmost discretion regarding enforcement of this order and any action we take will be consistent with the law as it is currently defined.”
WHAT THE SWEETWATER COUNTY ATTORNEY SAYS
“I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the state of Wyoming and the United States. I am also bound by specific rules of ethical conduct regarding the prosecution of criminal statutes lawfully passed by the legislative branch of this great state,” Sweetwater County Attorney Dan Erramouspe said.
“Due to constitutional, ethical, and logistic reasons, my office will not prosecute anyone for violation of Sweetwater County Public Health Order 2020-3, otherwise known as the “mask mandate.”
He said his decision is based on the parameters of his position and not a statement regarding the validity of face coverings in dealing with COVID-19, as he is the county attorney and is not an epidemiologist or a healthcare worker.
“I am aware that this is a hot-button topic for many on both sides of the issue. I strongly urge that all exercise respect. Respect for the rights of the business owner requiring face coverings to be worn in their business. Respect for the fellow American who feels face coverings are an infringement of individual rights; and respect for those who feel they need to be mandated for the greater good,” Erramouspe said.
“In Wyoming, we are proud of our independent nature and the strong adherence to individual rights and accountability; a trait lacking in other parts of the country. This sentiment includes the right for others to operate their business as they see fit, or to have an opinion in how we choose to lawfully conduct ourselves.”
The county attorney expressed hope COVID-19 problems will be over soon. He added what will surely last is the impact of how we treat our fellow citizens.
WHAT THE SWEETWATER COUNTY SHERIFF SAID
Sheriff John Grossnickle said he received countless concerns and objections to the idea and enforcement of a local mask mandate.
“Make no mistake, I stand unwavering in my conviction that wearing a mask is a personal decision and not that of unilateral executive action unrepresented by the people and voters of this community,” Grossnickle said.
The sheriff said the Wyoming Constitution affords each of us the inalienable right to make our own personal health care decisions, and he has sworn an oath to uphold and protect both the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Wyoming.
“The fact is, it is not a sheriff’s duty to enforce public health directives unless ordered to do so by an officer of the court or the State Legislature. As such, rest assured, your Sheriff’s Office will not take enforcement action by issuing citations or arresting violators for a public health directive that I believe is contrary to our constitutional liberties as citizens,” he said.
“With that said, your rights and privileges do not diminish or supersede the rights and privileges of others, nor do our personal rights and privileges abdicate any of us from extending care, compassion and respect to one another as friends and neighbors.”
As a lifelong Wyoming resident and fellow member of this community, Grossnickle said he takes great pride in the shared values ingrained in each of us as stewards of this great state and denizens of our community.
“Personal responsibility and compromise is the only way we can keep our vulnerable citizens safe and our economy open. As we all value the constitutional liberties afforded us under the law, in order to keep moving forward, each of us must renew our commitment as stakeholders of this community in doing our part to take care of one another during these difficult times,” he concluded.