When Gov. Jay Inslee announced he will be requiring masks in Yakima County to combat COVID-19, he said it was a legal order, not a suggestion.
County law enforcement officials say they see it as a matter of discretion, however.
The governor’s order takes effect Friday.
“I want to evaluate the law given by the attorney general and the governor. What it is they are proclaiming and what are my duties as Yakima County prosecuting attorney in following the oath I have taken?” said Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic. “What is the right thing that the people have entrusted me to do?”
But a representative of the state Department of Labor and Industries said the agency can fine businesses that do not comply with the “No masks, no service” order and — if necessary — revoke their licenses.
Inslee announced Saturday that he was preparing a mandatory masking order for Yakima County to defuse what he called an “imminent explosion” of COVID-19 in the county, where the rate of new infections has shown little sign of abating.
On Tuesday, Inslee announced that masks would be required throughout the state to slow the spread of the virus, while Yakima County businesses are required to refuse service to customers who refuse to wear a mask.
The state is leaving it to the discretion of local authorities how to enforce the order with individuals, Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said.
Spokesman Casey Schilperoort said the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t seen a proclamation yet or what statutes it cites, and Sheriff Bob Udell is awaiting further legal advice. In the meantime, Schilperoort said the sheriff’s office will continue to pursue public education over enforcement.
Brusic said he has not seen the formal orders and their legal underpinnings.
“If you don’t wear a mask, it could be a potential misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor,” Brusic said. “Is it going to be at the discretion of the prosecutors? Is it going to be through other methodologies?”
And if it were to be enforceable, Brusic also questioned about whether there were adequate police and prosecutors to pursue those charges while still focusing on more serious crimes.
Plus, they would have to navigate exceptions for people who cannot wear masks for health reasons or a deaf person who relies of lip reading to communicate.
“It’s a complicated case, one we haven’t dealt with before,” Brusic said.
Likewise, Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray said the issue is medical not legal, and that enforcement should fall to the Yakima Health District rather than police agencies. YPD, Murray said, would assist the health district if needed.
Faulk said state agencies will enforce the “No mask, no service” order with businesses.
Linda Adame, a safety and health specialist with L&I, said the department can fine businesses $200 to $10,000 for violations, depending on the situation.
If a business continues to flout the order after L&I explains it and the business has been fined, the state can take harsher steps. Revoking its business license is an option, but that would be a last resort, she said.
L&I will conduct random inspections to ensure masks are being used by customers and employees, as well as acting on complaints from the public, she said.