Captain John Shaffer of the Great Falls Police Department, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, and Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki hosted a news conference on Thursday in support of the recent state-ordered mask mandate.
Governor Steve Bullock announced on Wednesday a state-wide directive requiring face coverings in Montana, effective immediately, in all counties that have four or more active cases of COVID-19, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
During the news conference on Thursday, officials said they will jointly support the Cascade City-County Health Department in their enforcement of the mandate throughout the county. However, Racki stressed that people should not call 911 to report people who are not wearing a mask or face covering.
Sheriff Jesse Slaughter echoed the sentiment: “911 is not the appropriate call to make over someone not wearing a mask.” He continued, “There's nothing in the Constitution that says me as a law enforcement officer can walk up to citizens out in public and demand that they wear a mask. We are asking you to wear a mask because we don't want to see more people get sick, and we also want to protect our businesses that are very much under this mandate because of their licenses."
However, in the case that a mask issue escalates to a criminal issue, law enforcement can intervene. “If there's a situation where someone refuses to wear a mask in a business...and the owner or proprietor asks that person to leave, then it would be appropriate to involve law enforcement because then it becomes a trespass issue,” Slaughter said.
Racki noted that some residents have met the directive with opposition but requests that they comply out of respect for public safety. “We recognize there are conflicting opinions on wearing masks and not everyone agrees with the governor’s request. With that in mind we ask you to please set aside those conflicting opinions by simply complying with the governor’s directive to wear a mask...As citizens of cascade county you have a duty to protect yourself and protect others. And that’s what we’re trying to do here is make sure everyone stays safe,” Racki said.
In addition to respecting public safety, he requested the public show the same respect to those business owners doing their best to comply with the directive, by complying themselves: "It is important to understand that the businesses within our community are relying on the people's compliance. These businesses not only have the right to deny service to you but the obligation to ensure the safety of their patrons. Please do not take your frustrations out on business owners and employees when they ask you to put on a mask, or if they ask you to leave if you refuse to do so."
Anyone who wants to report a violation is asked to call the City-County Health Department in Great Falls at 406-454-6950.
Similar announcements have been made in other Montana communities:
- BILLINGS: Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said officers will not be writing citations for people who don't wear masks. "Law enforcement in Yellowstone County is not changing its posture from phase 1 enforcement," St. John said. "Our primary response is gong to be education. We want and certainly hope that the citizens of Billings and Yellowstone County will voluntarily comply and not put us into position where we need to take enforcement action." St. John said businesses may ask customers to wear a mask and not complying may lead to a different enforcement. "That takes it out of the mandated mask situation and puts it into a trespass," he said. "So we will deal with that. We will ask people to either mask up or give them the opportunity to leave, one or the other. But the potential for arrest for trespassing in those situations is there."
- LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY: The Lewis & Clark County Sheriff's Office says they will be involved in any mask complaints if ordered by Lewis & Clark Public Health. "Our first responsibility is, if we get a complaint, it goes to the health department. The health department is going to notify us or they are going to take care of it as far as starting with an educational phone call," said Undersheriff Jason Grimmis. The Helena Police Department said they will follow similar protocols. Anyone who wants to report a mask violation should contact Lewis & Clark Public Health, who will decide if a law enforcement response is needed.
- GALLATIN COUNTY: Keep 911 for emergencies only! If you have questions, concerns, or complaints about face coverings or COVID-19 in Gallatin County, please contact the the COVID-19 call center at 406-548-0123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- LAKE COUNTY: The Lake County Sheriff's Office is asking people to stop calling the 911 Dispatch Center regarding people or businesses they feel are not following the mask mandate, stating the center has been overloaded. In a social media post Thursday, the Sheriff's Office wrote, "This is not deemed an emergency and it is inappropriate to call either the emergency or non-emergency number for those that are non-compliant in the opinion of the citizen." While law enforcement will not be dispatched to these calls, they urge people to be responsible and practice safety precautions.
The state-wide directive requires that masks be used in most indoor settings and where social distancing cannot be maintained. Bullock said businesses have the right to deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask. But he stopped short of calling for fines or other punishment for failing to comply. He said law enforcement and public health agencies should take the role of education for most violators and reserve harsher action for repeat offenders.
The directive requires businesses, government offices, and other indoor spaces open to the public to ensure that employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, and visitor wear a face mask that covers their mouth and nose while inside such spaces. The directive also requires face coverings at organized outdoor activities of 50 or more people, where social distancing is not possible or is not observed.
“Many Montanans answered the call to mask up – a call that came from our hospitals, nurses, and doctors, our vibrant small business community, our frontline workers, and our high-risk neighbors,” Bullock said. “I thank all of those who take seriously their personal responsibility and their role in stopping COVID-19. But we need even more Montanans, and the visitors who come here, to mask up.”