Ohio sheriff says he won't enforce governor's mask order: 'I'm not going to be the mask police'

An Ohio sheriff on Wednesday vowed to not enforce Gov. Mike DeWine's (R) order requiring residents to wear masks in counties deemed to be at "high risk" due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

"I’m not going to be the mask police," Butler County Police Sheriff Richard Jones said during an appearance on CNN. "I’m telling people don’t call 911. All the police have been decimated as far as being laid off, having budgets cut ... and I am not going to enforce the mask wearing."

DeWine on Tuesday issued an order mandating that residents in several counties wear masks in any indoor public setting and outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained. The order, which went into effect on Wednesday, applies to seven counties designated “Red Alert Level 3,” including Butler, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Huron, Montgomery and Trumbull counties, the governor's office said. 

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DeWine's order will remain in effect as long as the counties remain in “Red Alert Level 3” or if they increase to "Purple Alert Level 4." The order will not apply if counties fall into a “Level 2” alert. Local health departments are tasked with enforcing the policy. 

"In addition to social distancing and reducing unnecessary interactions with others, we know that wearing a mask helps protect others in the community. It has been, and remains, a very strong recommendation that I urge all Ohioans to continue doing even if you are not in a red-alert county," DeWine said in a statement. 

The announcement came amid a more aggressive push from federal and state leaders for people to wear masks in public to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 3 million people in the U.S. and accounted for roughly 130,000 deaths.

Some states and counties have instituted mask orders in recent weeks amid surges in infections in parts of the country. The U.S. on Tuesday reported more than 60,000 cases of COVID-19, marking a new high over a 24-hour period. However, mask mandates have produced tensions in certain regions, with some local officials and residents opposing the measures. 

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While speaking with CNN, Jones said he has regularly worn a mask amid the pandemic. But he stressed that it "should be a choice" and that law enforcement would not be involved in the new order's enforcement. 

"You shouldn’t have to wear a mask if you don’t want to. If you’re sick, that’s one thing," he said. 

Daniel Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine, told The Hill in a phone interview that the governor's order would be enforced by local health departments and that law enforcement would need to be involved only in "extreme circumstances," such as when someone diagnosed with the virus entered a public space without a mask. 

"We don’t expect criminal prosecutions," he said. "Ohioans have done a great job of following health protocols. We’ve strongly encouraged wearing masks throughout that process, and a number of residents have." 

Tierney added that failure to abide by the requirements could result in civil penalties such as fines. But he said that residents have been advised to call local health departments and not law enforcement for issues related to masks. The Ohio governor's office has not released details on how health departments will enforce the order.

Ohio has reported more than 58,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 confirmed and probable deaths caused by the disease.

DeWine's office said that the order, which does not apply to children below the age of 10, will be reassessed every week.