No Northwoods Sheriff Will Enforce Evers' Mask Order, WXPR Finds

Jul 31, 2020

Credit Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Sheriffs in Oneida, Vilas, Forest, Langlade, Lincoln and Iron counties, as well as multiple local police chiefs, won’t enforce the mask-wearing mandate put into place by Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday.

Several law enforcement officials spoke to WXPR or released press statements, which are linked below. 

The order, which calls for people to wear masks in indoor settings, except for private homes, goes into effect Saturday. It’s a response to spiking numbers of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.

The Oneida County Sheriff’s Office views the mandate as unconstitutional.

“We believe that this was an order that was put out by the governor. It did not come through the legislature. It’s not a law,” said Captain Terri Hook. “That’s part of our opinion about why we believe it violates the Constitution.”

Hook said there were also too many exemptions to the order to allow deputies to effectively enforce it.

She said if people see someone not wearing a mask, they shouldn’t call law enforcement.

“If they don’t want to be around people that are not wearing masks, they should leave,” she said.

In Vilas County, Sheriff Joe Fath found out about the mandate through the media.

“It would have been nice to know this was coming,” he told WXPR.

His declination to enforce the order is a result of the department’s capacity, Fath said.

“We just don’t have enough officers or resources to start becoming the ‘mask police’ in Vilas County,” he said. “I would encourage people to follow the governor’s order. Wear masks when you feel it’s appropriate.”

In a Facebook post, Forest County Sheriff John Dennee said his agency will not respond to complaints of mask violations.

“I feel that this mandate is not a law enforcement matter, but more of a public health matter,” wrote Dennee. “Please do not tie up our emergency phone lines about mask issues unless there are other circumstances that require a law enforcement presence.”

Langlade County Sheriff Mark Westen said something similar in a press release announcing he won’t enforce the order.

“We believe the goal of this order is compliance and education and is not meant to be punitive. This is a health department function and ultimately not a law enforcement issue,” Westen wrote.

Lincoln County will not enforce the order, Sheriff Ken Schneider announced. Merrill Police Chief Corey Bennett announced the same.

Iron County Sheriff Paul Samardich put out the most extensive press release on the matter. It said the agency supports individual actions that can be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including mask-wearing, but it won’t take direct law enforcement action on the order.

“Consistent with our understanding of the Executive Order, the goal is compliance and education and is not meant to be punitive,” Samardich wrote.

According to Samardich, deputies will continue to respond to premises with masks orders at which people without masks refuse to leave or wear a mask.

Saying the department lacked the resources to enforce the order, Minocqua Police Chief Dave Jaeger asked people not to call with mask-wearing violations.

Phillips Police Chief Michael Hauschild won’t enforce it either.

“If people want to wear a mask, awesome, totally fine to do,” Hauschild said. “They just don’t want to wear the mask? That’s their God-given right. I don’t want to come in here and force people that they have to wear the mask when I don’t think it’s just.”

Price County Sheriff Brian Schmidt was on vacation on Friday, and a dispatcher said he would address the issue next week..

Evers put in the order on Thursday, making Wisconsin the 32nd state with such a mandate. He said mask-wearing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 as cases continue to rise in Wisconsin.

“We’re going to listen to the science and public health experts to guide our decision-making. Folks, the science and public health experts are telling us that face coverings and masks can save lives,” Evers said. “My mask protects you, and your mask protects me. Our masks work best when we both wear them together.”

Park Falls Police Chief Jerry Ernst said he thought the order would likely get overturned by court action, similar to what happened with Evers’ Safer at Home order.

Several sheriffs and police chiefs asked the public not to call them with mask complaints and tie up emergency lines.