Police, sheriff focus on education in addressing mask-wearing complaints

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 20, 2020

By Shavonne Potts

SALISBURY — Complaints are still being reported about businesses whose employees and/or customers are not wearing masks, but local law enforcement say there is little they can do to enforce it.

The governor’s order requires face coverings in retail businesses, restaurants as well as personal care or grooming and tattoo shops and other similar establishments. When it comes to the enforcement of the order, its text says “law enforcement personnel are not authorized to criminally enforce the face-covering requirements of this executive order against individual workers, customers, or patrons.”

It’s a stipulation Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes and Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten say they are adhering to. Stokes said instead of citations against businesses, the method of enforcement specified in Gov. Roy Cooper’s order, police officers are going the education route.

“We have not cited any businesses. We are still advising of the possible violation and educating about the order,” he said. “We have received very few complaints. Most of those are funneled through County Emergency Management before they get to us.”

Stokes added that his department’s response to these orders “has been to educate for compliance.”

“The governor has even expressed that as the proper way to approach the orders, voluntary compliance,” Stokes said.

Auten said early on the sheriff’s office issued citations to some who violated the stay-at-home order. In those incidents, the people cited were committing other crimes as well, he said. In April, a Kannapolis pair were charged with breaking into a vehicle outside of a Kannapolis business and violating the stay-at-home order. A week later a couple was charged during a traffic stop for driving-related infractions and violating the stay-at-home order.

“We have received a few complaints about mask wearing, but not as of late,” Auten said. “We have not cited a business for this. The few complaints were handled by speaking with owners.”

Almost all of the complaints have fallen within the city or town limits due to the nature of the businesses, Auten said.

Rowan County spokesman T.J. Brown said the Rowan Public Health Department has received complaints about specific businesses but that most people are trying to comply. Brown said masking is one component of the health recommendations to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“While we know that masking helps reduce the spread we know all three things together really help,” Brown said, noting waiting six feet apart and washing hands regularly.

Brown said he believes the goal behind the mask-wearing executive order is to be more educational.

Typically when a complaint is filed, the Rowan Public Health Department issues a letter. If there’s a larger number of complaints, the company will receive a visit or phone call from a nurse manager at the Health Department.

The health department will also make sure the business has access to educational material,  understand the guidance behind mask wearing and have an opportunity to ask questions, Brown said.