DICKINSON, N.D. -- On Saturday morning, the Stark County Sheriff’s Department released a statement on their Facebook page in response to Gov. Doug Burgum's statewide mask mandate. In the brief message, Sheriff Corey Lee said his department would continue to educate the public and keep the county as safe as possible, but would not enforce the new mandate with any citations.
Burgum’s mandate comes as his administration released a series of mitigation measures that will go into effect on Sunday night and will remain in effect until Dec. 13. According to the new mandate face coverings will now be required in indoor business and indoor public settings, as well as outdoor public settings where physical distancing isn’t possible. Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke signed the order which includes exceptions for children under age 5, individuals with a medical or mental health condition or disability that makes it unreasonable to wear a mask, and for religious services.
“The most effective weapon against COVID-19 is wearing a mask,” Wilke said in a statement. “This is a simple tool, but one that’s critical in helping protect our loved ones and slow the spread.”
Lee said that his department would focus on education and would provide citizens who are not wearing masks with a copy of the new mandate.
"There are going to be people who haven't read the mandate or don't understand it, and we'll provide them with a copy of it and explain it to them. If a business calls us with a complaint that someone is not complying with the mandate, we will certainly respond and do our job in removing them or whatever the case may be," Lee said. "We will comply with the mandate by doing what the governor has requested of us, which is to prioritize education and reserve penalties for the most egregious infringements. That will be our goal."
Garnering cooperation through education is what Lee said his department would focus on, but also added that he would not actively pursue penalties through citations — citing officer discretion.
"You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," Lee said. "People in Stark County don't like to be told what to do and especially when they feel like their constitutional rights are being infringed upon."
Lee said he understands the devastation a COVID related death can bring to a family and community, having recently lost his grandfather to the virus, and that he hopes that people will wear a mask and be safe. He said that he holds nothing but the highest respect for healthcare professionals and doesn't want it to appear as though his lack of citing violators reflects any animosity or disdain against frontline health care workers.
"They have an oath to save lives and give aid to those that need it, and I have an oath to support and defend the constitution," Lee said. "I understand the hardships we are facing in this unique challenge. We just buried my grandfather last Tuesday who died of COVID, and it wasn't a pleasant death. I know firsthand the devastation, I know it's a real thing and I mentioned that in my statement. But just because it's the right thing to do doesn't mean that it's constitutionally right."
Lee added, "People still have constitutional rights and I'm sworn to protect those rights. I take honoring my oath seriously."
Speaking to the citizens of Stark County, Lee said that people should do the right thing.
"I understand that people have strong feelings on the concerns with wearing a mask, but hopefully people will respect one another and do the right thing as they see it," Lee said. "Obviously we are not going to go into businesses and police this, and in my opinion that is overreach. I'll educate businesses on the mandate, but I certainly won't issue a citation."