Hours after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Washington state residents to cover their faces in public, a Republican sheriff in a rural swath of the state’s southwest suggested they should be doing no such thing.
“Here’s what I say,” Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza told the crowd outside a church Tuesday, carrying a megaphone and sporting his green and beige uniform but no face mask. “Don’t be a sheep.”
Few of the people cheering on Snaza covered their faces either, according to video of the scene taken by the Daily Chronicle of Centralia. Indeed, the words on a billboard above the crowd seemed to capture their feeling about the pandemic: “Oh, no! A virus. Quick – burn the bill of rights.”
With coronavirus infections rapidly spreading across the American South and West and more states making masks a requirement, dozens of sheriffs like Snaza are staging a rebellion against state governments. An adherence to their interpretation of Constitution, they say, comes before any kind of public health advice.
Since April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said people should cover their faces in public to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 122,000 people in the United States to date. But Snaza said he did not believe masks were effective, arguing they should be optional instead.
“My frustration is we continue to listen to the governor’s requests without asking questions, without saying: ‘Well wait a minute, there’s the other side to this,’ ” Snaza told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
He is not alone. In Nevada and North Carolina on Thursday, multiple sheriffs said their Democratic governors’ mask requirements were “unconstitutional and unenforceable.” After five California counties ignored a similar directive, Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, threatened to withhold state funds. Another Washington state sheriff called Inslee an “idiot.”
As they battle through viral Facebook posts and appearances on local TV and radio, these mostly Republican sheriffs have effectively blocked their governors’ orders. If they refuse to enforce their rules, it is unclear who else will.
Public health officials have insisted that masks are an easy way to protect the whole population.
“Everybody should wear a mask when out public,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, told the Sacramento Press Club this week. “It should not be a political issue. It is purely a public health issue.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Inslee spoke out against the sheriffs objecting to his “Mask Up, Washington” campaign, saying that mask wearers should not be compared to “barnyard animals.”
“We have to be disappointed in any law enforcement officer who would encourage illegal behavior,” Inslee said. Mask wearing, he added, “is about demonstrating our respect and care for the other people around us.”
Still, two Washington sheriffs insisted they can only “educate” residents instead of strictly enforcing the mask order. Snaza’s twin brother, who heads up the sheriff’s department in a neighboring county, said he will not require his own deputies to cover their faces, fearing it could put the officers in jeopardy in high-risk situations.
In North Carolina, at least 10 sheriffs this week said they would not be carrying out a similar directive from Gov. Roy Cooper, D. The minor nature of the offenses as well as a lack of resources, many said, meant they had more serious things to worry about.
“I certainly encourage people to be careful and take safety precautions,” Wes Tripp, sheriff of Halifax County, wrote on social media, according to WWBT. “The wearing of a mask is a personal decision, not one of a governor in Raleigh.”
While a wave of newly elected black Democratic sheriffs has radically changed the face of law enforcement in North Carolina, many of those who spoke out against Cooper’s mask order were white, male and Republican.
But joining them was Paula Dance, the Democratic sheriff in Pitt County, who in 2018 was elected as the first black female sheriff in the state’s history.
“These are very tense and polarizing times in so many ways,” she wrote in a memo to residents of her county, in North Carolina’s mostly agricultural eastern end. “So many issues in 2020 have tried to divide us. I pray we prove once again that the people of Pitt County are better than this and can rise above the conflicts of elsewhere.”
The trend of “constitutionalist sheriffs” standing up against state laws is hardly new. Many of the country’s most prominent law enforcement officials, like Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, rose to fame on such campaigns.
But the pandemic has created a particularly ripe opportunity to rebel against left-leaning governors, as law enforcement officials feel emboldened to speak up on behalf of the more conservative voters who brought them into office.
A May analysis by the Marshall Project found that at least 60 sheriffs across more than a dozen states were publicly resisting stay-at-home orders and other virus-related restrictions issued by governors. Three-quarters of those sheriffs were in states governed by Democrats.
As NPR has reported, sheriffs can give voice to political frustration that is especially tangible in more conservative, rural areas – including those in Washington and North Carolina – where top state officials were voted in by an urban majority.
Some scholars, however, also trace the sheriffs’ refusal to enforce laws they disagree with back to more sinister roots: from the Ku Klux Klan to the far-right Posse Comitatus movement of the 1980s and eventually the quiet founding of a group for hundreds of sheriffs who refuse to enforce all laws they find unconstitutional.
Since his speech Tuesday, Sheriff Robert Snaza clarified that he wants to take the mask order on a case-by-case basis – while getting people to think, too.
“Just because I said ‘don’t be sheep’ does not mean that I’m outwardly saying I want you to violate the orders,” Snaza told OPB.