Face coverings optional for most law enforcement

Sergeant Derek Etheridge of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office poses in his face mask outside the county refueling station on Harney Street in Newport. The LCSO is the only local agency that requires its officers to wear face coverings when in close interaction with the public. (Photo by Kenneth Lipp)

LINCOLN COUNTY — The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office is the only law enforcement agency in the county that requires a face covering when interacting with the public — for most, it is a recommendation.

The News-Times was recently contacted by Newport attorney Richard Diaz, who said he’d been pulled over by Toledo police and was concerned about the fact the officer did not wear a mask when speaking to him through his open window. He said he’s in a high-risk group for serious complications from COVID-19 and has been conscientious about physical-distancing measures to protect himself during the pandemic, and he found it jarring to be thrust into a circumstance where he had no choice in the matter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Oregon Health Authority, recommend people wear face coverings when physical distancing is difficult, and doing so is a requirement for certain private and public sector workers. Masks are most effective at preventing the wearer from transmitting an infection and less so at protecting the wearer from an unmasked person, so for those who choose to closely follow public health recommendations, avoiding close quarters with the unmasked is the best option. That’s not really a choice when law enforcement pulls you over. However, the Toledo Police Department is by no means unique in that it has no requirement that officers wear face masks — the same goes for Newport and Lincoln City police officers, as well as Oregon State Police troopers.

Diaz said he contacted Toledo Police Chief Michael Pace to suggest his officers wear them and met resistance, so he followed up with Mayor Rod Cross, who sought clarity from the chief regarding the department’s policy. Cross read to the News-Times from an email in which Pace cited the absence of law-enforcement-specific guidelines from the health authority and noted the relative uniformity among local agencies on the matter.

The mayor said he thought the principal issue with masks was the difficulty of communication, and he would prefer officers spoke through a partially opened window and passed things like licenses with a gloved hand, but didn’t feel he had the expertise or authority to direct an approach. “Our main goal is officer safety,” Cross said. Pace would not detail a department policy for the News-Times, saying only, “Our protocol is the same as most agencies in the state.”

Newport Police Chief Jason Malloy said his department has a directive suggesting they be worn, but doing so isn’t always practical and therefore not a requirement. “Our officers are all supplied with both barrier-type masks and face coverings. If our officers are unable to maintain social distancing on contacts, they are encouraged to wear masks. There are times when this is not always practical due to the type of call, or the quickest in which some calls can escalate,” Malloy wrote in an email to the News-Times. Similarly, Oregon State Police Public Information Officer Capt. Timothy Fox said masks were optional for troopers, with a recommendation that they be worn when physical distancing isn’t possible. Lincoln City Police did not reply to emails by press time, but the News-Times understands that agency also suggests, but does not require, face coverings.

Lincoln County Public Health Public Information Officer Susan Trachsel said the health department continues to advise the public, employers and employees to follow OHA guidance posted to its COVID-19 resource webpage. That guidance on face coverings does not address law enforcement or other government employees. It recommends the general public wear them where it’s difficult to keep a 6-foot distance, and certain “businesses” must provide and require employees to wear them, but that category includes only grocery stores; fitness-related organizations; pharmacies; public transit agencies and providers; personal services providers; restaurants, bars, breweries, brewpubs, wineries, tasting room and distilleries; retail stores; and ride-sharing services.

Face coverings are likely to become a part of interaction with many government services, if not when on the less-fortunate end of the law. When Lincoln County courtrooms open again for regular hearings on Monday, June 1, they will be required for all those with business before the circuit court, as well as employees. And during the regular meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, the commissioners considered a committee’s recommendation that all county employees be required to wear them in any common area, with a recommendation that members of the public do so.

Sheriff Curtis Landers, the county’s lone law enforcement executive to require his deputies wear masks when making close contacts, recommended commissioners also mandate face coverings for the public when in county buildings. Deputies conduct screening at the courthouse entrance, and ascertaining the destination of each person to determine if they should be masked could be burdensome, Landers told commissioners. “Plus, the other piece of it is, we’re requiring employees to wear them, and we know that wearing a face covering is to protect others, not to protect the self. So this would help protect our employees when they have to work one-on-one with somebody to help them with whatever they’re in the courthouse for,” Landers said.

County Counsel Wayne Belmont said the ability of a government agency to require a mask for access to public services was still an open question. “This thing has not been tested, it has not been tested anywhere in the country,” Belmont said. “More than probably any other issue that we’re facing in this whole discussion around COVID, this thing of face coverings is, I think, the one that’s most fraught with potential risks and liability, on both ends, both as a public health measure and the question of the legality of doing it.” 

The board did not make a decision on the matter, opting to discuss it again at its meeting on Monday, June 1.

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