Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said his office will not cite people who choose not to wear masks, despite a statewide mandatory masking policy that takes effect Friday.
Neither will the Yakima Police Department.
Udell announced Thursday that his office will not be stopping, citing or arresting people who do not comply with a state-issued directive from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee that people in public need to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.
Udell said his stance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been to educate and engage residents, rather than issue fees or citations for noncompliance.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, my position has been engagement and education over enforcement,” he said. “It is a position shared by law enforcement throughout the state.”
Udell said he took his guidance on the issue from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, an organization that recommended law enforcement focus on education about the necessary precautions for the virus.
Udell said he supported Inslee’s recommendations but noted the directive allowed local agencies to decide how they would enforce it.
He said penalizing people who choose not to wear masks could damage trust built between the public and the department. He also said his office is not interested in restricting people’s civil liberties.
“I support the individual’s right to determine the level of safety each one of us chooses, free of the threat of government intervention,” Udell said in a written statement. “I believe people will do the right thing for their family, friends and community.”
Randy Beehler, spokesman for the city of Yakima, said the Yakima Police Department also will focus on education and will not be stopping, questioning, citing or arresting people for not wearing masks.
“The phrase we are using is ‘enforcement through education,’” Beehler said Thursday. “Our goal is we want the most people possible wearing masks, and the most effective way to get there is through education and community buy-in.”
Mike Faulk, spokesman for the Office of Gov. Jay Inslee, said a focus on education was an appropriate measure for local law enforcement agencies to take.
“The enforcement piece is at the discretion of local law enforcement, and it sounds like if the focus is education, that is appropriate,” Faulk said. “We don’t want people to be punished. We want people to be educated and understand the necessity of this.”
Faulk added that conversations remain ongoing about enforcement possibilities. Noncompliant businesses could see penalties, including a revocation of their licenses, he said.