June 24, 2020 |BYAustin Jenkins | KUOW NPR |
“Hours after Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide mandate for people to wear masks in public, a Republican sheriff in southwest Washington appeared to urge open defiance of the order.
“Don’t be a sheep,” Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza said to loud applause from a mostly maskless crowd gathered in a church parking lot.
Snaza’s comments were captured by a photographer for The Daily Chronicle newspaper and posted to YouTube.
On Wednesday, Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer, who has previously refused to enforce state laws and was recently featured in The New Yorker magazine, also blasted Inslee’s order in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Songer called the governor an “idiot” and said he’s “overstepping his bounds, violating people’s constitutional rights.”
“In case you guys didn’t hear, Governor Inslee in his infinite wisdom has decided after over a hundred and some odd days that we should all wear face masks — inside and out,” Snaza told the group.
The crowd had gathered near the base of a billboard that sits alongside Interstate 5 in Napavine that has become the target of a petition drive to have it removed.
For decades, the owner of the billboard has posted politically conservative, and often provocative, messages about government overreach, immigration and Democratic politicians.
A recent online petition to “Take down this racist Uncle Sam billboard” has so far garnered nearly 80,000 signatures.
The petition depicts an undated photograph of the billboard reading : “NO MEXICAN OLYMPIC TEAMS? ALL THE RUNNERS AND SWIMMERS ARE HERE!” It’s believed that was from more than a decade ago.
Earlier this month, fire officials said someone tried to set fire to the sign.
On Tuesday, according to The Chronicle, a group of local residents amassed in the parking lot of the Bethel Church in response to rumors that anti-fascists, known as antifa, were planning to stage some sort of protest at the site. Similar rumors have spread elsewhere in Washington and around the nation in recent weeks, in some cases triggering armed citizen responses.
Photos from the gathering showed a crowd of about 100 people, including some who openly carried firearms. One man held a sign that said “F*** ANTIFA.” Another waved a thin blue line flag in support of police.
While the antifa protesters didn’t materialize, law enforcement officers, including Sheriff Snaza, were present. At one point, Snaza said he was asked to address the crowd.
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, Snaza said his comments about Inslee’s mask requirement came at the end of a speech that lasted several minutes and was borne of frustration over the governor’s Covid-19 policies, including his previous “Stay Home” order.
“My frustration is we continue to listen to the governor’s requests without asking questions, without saying: ‘Well wait a minute, there’s the other side to this’ and in particular wearing the mask,” Snaza said.
On Wednesday, during a news conference, Inslee responded to Snaza’s comments.
“I think we have to be disappointed in any law enforcement officer who would encourage illegal behavior,” Inslee said, adding that mask wearing “is about demonstrating our respect and care for the other people around us.”
Snaza, who was first elected in 2014, said he’s not convinced mask wearing helps reduce the spread of coronavirus and believes that face coverings should be optional, not mandatory.
“Yet we’re telling people now to wear it and if you don’t wear it, we’re going to cite you for that,” Snaza said.
Since April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people wear face coverings in public settings. The Washington Department of Health’s order making masks mandatory takes effect Friday. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a maximum fine of $1,000.
Inslee announced the statewide requirement Tuesday after new modeling was published that suggests the rate of Covid-19 transmission is rising in both western and eastern Washington.
Previously, Inslee had mandated masks in hard-hit Yakima County, which has nearly as many cases of the virus as the entire state of Oregon. But despite his comments on Tuesday evening, Snaza said he’s not calling for open defiance of the governor’s order.
“Just because I said ‘don’t be sheep’ does not mean that I’m outwardly saying I want you to violate the orders,” Snaza said Wednesday.
In response, Inslee said he appreciated the fact Snaza was clarifying his intention and called it “very helpful.”
In fact, Snaza said he has a mask and noted that his own department requires staff to wear masks in the office and that deputies are supposed to don them when going into residences.
As for enforcing the governor’s order, Snaza said his policy is to take each instance on a “case-by-case basis” with a focus on educating the public rather than issuing citations. Even if he was inclined to cite scofflaws, Snaza said local law enforcement agencies like his don’t have the resources to enforce a governor’s order.
On Wednesday, other sheriff’s offices issued similar statements. On Twitter, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office said it “has much larger public safety priorities than writing a ticket for a person not wearing a mask.”
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office — headed by Snaza’s twin brother John — said in a press release that “it would be inappropriate for deputies to criminally enforce this mandate,” because of the minor nature of the offense and the potential for it to turn into a negative interaction.
Several police agencies in north central Washington issued a joint statement that encouraged the public to take safety precautions, but said the mask order “is not a mandate for local law enforcement response.”
In recent weeks, county sheriffs in California and Arizona have also said they won’t enforce their states’ mask requirements.
In Lewis County, Sheriff Snaza’s frustrations with Inslee aren’t limited to the mask order. The sheriff, who often testifies before the Legislature and who serves on the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, said he’s disappointed that Inslee hasn’t communicated better with law enforcement throughout the pandemic. Snaza said he was also let down that Inslee has not gone out of his way to thank police officers as front line workers during the pandemic and during recent protests over police killings and racial injustice.
The sheriff, echoing President Donald Trump, also criticized Inslee’s lack of response to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest in Seattle.
“When you close your eyes to what’s going on up in CHOP as the governor, I’m offended by it,” Snaza said.
When first asked about the Seattle protest, which has taken over several blocks around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, Inslee said earlier this month: “I have not heard anything about that.”
Pushback from sheriffs against Inslee’s coronavirus orders is not new. In May, Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney wrote a defiant Facebook post about Inslee’s “Stay Home” order and said his department wouldn’t enforce it.
“The impacts of Covid-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights,” Fortney wrote at the time.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a billboard along Interstate 5 in Lewis County recently displayed a message about the Mexican Olympics team. It’s believed that message was displayed more than a decade ago.