Sheriff: Mask, vaccine mandates not his job to enforce

·4 min read


Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash has joined the ranks of Oregon county sheriffs who have written letters addressing Gov. Kate Brown's recent mandates on face masks and vaccinations for some public workers.

But Ash's letter, which was posted on Sunday, Aug. 29 to the Baker County Sheriff's Office Facebook page, is different in content and in tone from the letters that some of his colleagues have written.

Ash, for instance, doesn't contend that Brown's executive orders are unconstitutional, as Union County Sheriff Cody Bowen claims in an Aug. 13 letter.

Although Ash doesn't address the constitutional issue, he writes in the first paragraph that his stance on state mandates on masks and vaccinations has not changed:

"The Baker County Sheriff's Office has not and will not be enforcing mask or vaccine mandates," Ash wrote. "We are not responsible for enforcement of Oregon Health Authority rules."

Ash, like Bowen and some of the other sheriffs who have written letters, writes that he "is in favor of local control."

Ash wrote that he also favors "science, and common sense."

"Over the course of the pandemic, lapses in leadership at the state and national level have resulted in a certain level of distrust," Ash wrote. "We saw the benefits of local control last year when many of our small school districts were able to return to in-person learning and extra-curricular activities (without negative health consequences) much sooner than their larger counterparts."

Ash's letter doesn't mention Brown or any other state or local elected official.

Bowen's letter, by contrast, is addressed to Brown.

(Although the governor's communications director told The Oregonian that none of the sheriffs' letters had actually been sent to Brown.)

Bowen in his letter refers to Brown's "overreaching mandates" and "bullying threats," and he accuses the governor of "dictating our state by fear."

Bowen also contends that Brown is "inflicting more damage to our children than any virus could ever do, and you hide behind the misrepresentation that you care for us all. You ma'am care nothing about our children or the people of Eastern Oregon."

Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley also posted a letter to Brown that includes some of the same phrases as Bowen's letter does, including referring to Brown's "overreaching mandates" and "bullying threats."

Malheur County Sheriff Brian E. Wolfe wrote in a letter to his constituents that "It has become very apparent that certain government heads have used this pandemic to enact emergency procedures and are testing the waters of tolerance for the loss of freedom to alleged safety."

Ash in his letter acknowledges the current surge in COVID-19 cases. Baker County reported 270 cases from Aug. 1-27 — more than in any previous month.

"This spike in cases and hospitalizations is supported by real-time local data," Ash wrote. "I believe our county health department and county physician have our best interests at heart in making recommendations and providing guidance for our community. These are our own local experts who are a reliable source of information as we make our individual health decisions."

Dr. Eric Lamb, the county's public health officer, said earlier this month that the county's relatively low vaccination rate — seventh-lowest among Oregon's 36 counties — has contributed to the surge in infections during August.

"If we had gotten to an 80% vaccination rate, the pandemic would be over for us right now," Lamb said in an Aug. 12 press release. "First, absolutely stay home if you're sick, don't pass illness to others. Second, get vaccinated. The virus will keep mutating and spreading until we eliminate potential carriers."

Bowen takes a different tack in his letter addressed to Brown, writing: "We will raise our children how we see fit. We will choose to wear a mask or choose not to wear a mask. We will choose to get vaccinated or choose not to get vaccinated. Your mindless dictates will no longer be tolerated."

Ash, in his letter, acknowledges that the debate over masks, vaccines and the pandemic itself have become political.

"As Sheriff, I represent everyone, and I hate to see how residents are being divided over these issues," Ash wrote. "I believe that in spite of our differing viewpoints we all want to do what is best for our community. We breathe the same air. We visit the same stores. Our children go to the same schools. We are all still in this together. I ask that we don't attack those whose decisions may be different than ours, and to please take responsibility for staying home when you are sick. Real people around the world and in our own community have lost loved ones or are experiencing long-term health effects. My thoughts and prayers go out to them."