Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has issued an executive order, number 20-43, requiring Arkansans to wear face coverings when they are out in public.
Some in the general public have expressed concerns about both perceived infringement of civil liberties and lack of an enforcement mechanism, but the heads of both city and county law enforcement have made their positions clear on the mandate.
“The governor says to lead by example and to educate,” said Paragould Police Chief Todd Stovall, “and that’s what we’re going to do. But we will not be doing anything out of the ordinary, and I don’t read [the order] as an intent to write a bunch of tickets for not wearing masks.”
Stovall explained that his department would not refuse to respond to complaints about individuals not wearing masks in public. But he acknowledged there would likely be other concerns, accidents or incidents that would command greater attention from his department. “Calls like that will go on our list, but they will have the lowest priority.”
Nonetheless, Stovall continued, if a business or other public place has a person in it who is refusing to wear a face mask, that business or public place has every right to ask the person either to don a mask or to leave. He said that should the person refuse to comply with either request, then the business had every right to have the unwanted person removed, and that his department would respond. “We get calls to remove unwanted persons all the time,” he said, “so that’s nothing out of the ordinary.”
In a statement released Monday, department public information officer Capt. Brad Snyder added that the department’s officers will be wearing masks when in public places where social distancing is not possible.
“When interacting with the public, whether at the station or their homes,” he said, “and social distancing is not possible, our officers will be wearing a mask. It is our firm belief that we as police officers should set positive examples for others, and as such, we will attempt to do so in this matter by leading by example.”
Snyder concluded the news release with a call for unity and mutual assistance. “In these unprecedented times, we must remember to help one another and take care of one another,” he said. “We are all navigating these uncharted waters together, and as such, we will be learning and adapting together.”
Greene County Sheriff Steve Franks, in a Facebook post, explained in detail what his department’s positions on the order are, and what its responses would be.
“The Greene County Sheriff’s Office is compelled to follow the Governor’s Executive Order as a matter of law,” he said on Friday, “until such time that it is either rescinded by the Governor or is successfully challenged in court.”
Nonetheless, Franks gave credit to the citizens of the county for knowing when they should and should not wear the face masks. And he took care to point out that “[b]ecause EO 20-43 specifically states that law enforcement officers cannot detain, arrest, or confine any person for violating this order ... the Greene County Sheriff’s Office will not respond to complaints of non-compliance of the mask directive in EO 20-43.”
Like Stovall, Franks said his department would respond to requests for removal of unwanted persons who were refusing to wear masks when requested to do so. “What I am saying is that if a business owner is having problems with a customer not wearing a mask,” he wrote, “then we will respond to that.”
Franks also noted that businesses were not only within their rights to do so, but also risked adverse legal action for not enforcing the mask mandate on their premises.
“I hope people understand that a business is under the Arkansas Health Department rules,” Franks said in a follow-up post, “and they could get fined and/or shut down by the Health Department.”
By way of punishment, EO 20-43 itself calls for anything from a verbal or written warning, escalating to a fine of between $100 and $500 for conviction (a misdemeanor) of violating the mask mandate (as a violation of a directive from the Department of Health). Detention, arrest or incarceration for violating the mandate are specifically prohibited, while law enforcement officers are empowered and “encouraged” rather than required to enforce it.