IREDELL COUNTY, NC — As North Carolina residents ready for the state's new executive order requiring face coverings in public spaces starting Friday, one area law enforcement official publicly said he has no intention of enforcing the new policy, calling it unconstitutional.
"Overwhelming evidence that is growing by the week shows that wearing a face covering can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially from people who have it and don’t know it yet," Gov. Roy Cooper said during a news conference Wednesday announcing the new mandate. "One important point here: Required face coverings not only cause zero harm to our economy — they in fact help our economy by making it safer to shop, do business, and keep our small businesses running."
The decision to mandate masks has been met with vocal criticism that the order curtails personal liberties at a time when coronavirus continues to spread throughout the state. As of Thursday, North Carolina reported more than 57,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and 1,290 deaths. The state was ranked No. 13 for highest percent of positive COVID-19 cases in the nation, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In a statement posted on his office's Facebook page, Iredell County Sheriff Darren Campbell called the decision to wear a mask "a personal decision" and urged area residents to "take the precautions they feel necessary to protect themselves and their family.
"As your sheriff, it is not only my duty to enforce the laws enacted by our legislature, but to also protect the constitutional rights of all citizens," Campbell said. "I firmly believe that the order mandating face coverings is not only unconstitutional but unenforceable. In closing, to be perfectly clear, we have no intention of enforcing this order."
Campbell is not alone, according to reports. On Wednesday, sheriffs in Halifax and Sampson counties said they had no intention of enforcing Cooper's mask mandate, either, the Charlotte Observer reported. Earlier this month, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson voiced his opposition to Phase 2 restrictions that limited mass gatherings in the state, saying he would not enforce Cooper's mass gathering ban at ACE Speedway because he had "serious reservations on the legality" of the order.
According to an expert on state constitutions, Cooper's mandate is indeed legal but that, as it is written, criminal sanctions are not the point.
"Gubernatorial emergency powers are quite expansive, especially during public health crises, and are likely capable of encompassing mask-wearing policies," John Dinan, Wake Forest University political professor and author of "State Constitutional Politics: Governing by Amendment in the American States," told Patch in an email. "If a governor can require persons not to leave their home, it is not much of a stretch to say that a governor can require persons leaving their homes to wear masks, at least under certain circumstances and subject to broad exemptions."
While Cooper has the power to issue such a mandate, the order going into effect Friday is "practically unenforceable" because of the range of exemptions the order provides, Dinan said.
Some exemptions in the order include children under 11, those with medical conditions, people at home and those exercising outside.
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"Perhaps most important, under the executive order, persons can claim a health exemption or one of various additional exemptions and cannot be required to document or otherwise show proof of the grounds of their claimed exemption," he said. "Consequently, even if law enforcement officials were inclined to enforce the executive order in a vigorous fashion, the way the order is written makes it almost impossible that it could be enforced in a meaningful way."
The mandate wasn't written with heavy-handed enforcement in mind, he said, adding, "the point of the mandate is to rely heavily on education and encouragement rather than on punitive or criminal sanctions."
The mandate comes as the state faces wholesale increases in the trajectory of COVID-19 cases, percent of test positives and hospitalizations — trends that have all collectively led Cooper to call off the state progressing into Phase 3 of reopening for at least three weeks. Phase 2 was originally set to expire Friday.
"This is not where we planned to be, or wanted to be," Cooper said, calling the numbers "a stark warning."
Under the new mandate, face coverings will be required in public spaces, both indoor and outdoor, when socially distancing is difficult. The mandate also extends to employees and customers of retail businesses and restaurants. Workers in construction, meat processing, manufacturing and agricultural settings will also be required to wear face coverings.
The executive order that includes both the mask mandate and the Phase 2 extension goes into effect Friday at 5 p.m.
An informal survey of Patch 1,160 readers last week found that a majority support the use of face coverings as a collective means to slow the spread of coronavirus in North Carolina, and that mask use — or the lack thereof — is affecting personal decisions about where to spend money and how to socialize.
As of Thursday, 9 percent of all tests in North Carolina were positive. The World Health Organization recommends that governments have a percent positive rate of 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days before reopening.
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