Charged with enforcing Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate, police agencies in Rock and Walworth counties said they are going to focus on education rather than taking punitive action against those violating the order.
Officials with the Janesville Police Department and the Rock County Sheriff’s Office did not go quite as far as the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office, but all agencies echoed similar sentiments about enforcing the order, which could see legal challenges.
Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell wrote in a statement posted Friday on Facebook that his office, “will not be responding to complaints of individuals suspected of violating the Governor’s mandate, nor take any direct law enforcement action as it relates specifically to the Governor’s face covering mandate.”
Evers on Thursday issued a new public health emergency because of the still-worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin and ordered anyone age 5 and up to wear masks in all enclosed spaces except in a person’s home, the Associated Press reported.
There are some exceptions to the order, which starts Saturday and is scheduled to run until Sept. 28.
Janesville Deputy Chief Terry Sheridan said Friday it would be highly unlikely for his officers to make any arrests or issue any citations for violations of this order. They would hope to respond to a complaint and work out voluntary compliance.
If any situation was particularly egregious, he said, they might forward the matter to the district attorney’s office and have them decide on a course of action.
Still, he said these calls would be a low priority for the department.
Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said his department will be seeking voluntary compliance with the governor’s order and doesn’t anticipate his deputies writing many tickets.
His office will handle it much like the office handled enforcement of the safer-at-home order later struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, he said.
“I think with any new order that comes down, it takes a while to make sure everybody is aware of it, understands the different aspects of the order, so I certainly anticipate approaching the new order very much like we approached the last one, and we’ll spend some time educating people and working toward that voluntary compliance,” Knudson said.
He said writing tickets would be a “last resort.”
Deputies issued no tickets while enforcing the safer-at-home order, he said.
Deputies will respond to complaints as they are able.
“Certainly, we have to prioritize the time. We have only so many officers out there. We have to look at the different calls that are coming in. When we get there, we just try to explain to people what that law is and just encourage them to comply with it,” Knudson said.
If a business calls to complain that a customer is refusing to wear a mask and won’t leave, the customer could be cited for trespassing, Knudson said. Sheridan and Picknell said similarly.
For Walworth County, Picknell wrote in the statement that his office supports individual actions that reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing, washing hands, hand sanitizer and using personal protective equipment, which include masks.
Picknell directed questions on the order to the phone number 211 instead of 911, which is for emergency calls.
Walworth County’s case count of the disease caused by the coronavirus has increased substantially in July. At the beginning of the month, the county reported having 641 cases, which was about three months into the pandemic for Wisconsin.
In July, the total reported case count in Walworth County has nearly doubled. There are 1,223 laboratory confirmed cases—1,123 of which have recovered—as well as two patients currently hospitalized and 77 patients isolating at home.
There have been 21 deaths in Walworth County from the disease.
The county has moved to cancel the Walworth County Fair and the Elkhorn Ribfest.
In Rock County, the latest figures updated Friday show 1,342 cases and 26 deaths.
Knudson declined to say if he agrees with the governor’s order.
“I feel that public safety and the health of our community is very important, and if this will help to promote our public health and safety, then I appreciate that. Everything is shades of yes and no. I appreciate what we’re trying to accomplish, here,” Knudson said.