Sheriff’s Office prioritizing explanation and education during enforcement

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/1/20

When it comes to enforcing Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide mask mandate, Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson is prioritizing transparency and education.

In a statement after Cooper’s executive …

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Sheriff’s Office prioritizing explanation and education during enforcement

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When it comes to enforcing Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide mask mandate, Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson is prioritizing transparency and education.

In a statement after Cooper’s executive order and in an interview with the News + Record, Roberson made clear what he and his office can and cannot do under the executive order, while also complimenting it as “an attempt to save lives by preventing the spread” of coronavirus.

Executive Order No. 147 doesn’t allow the sheriff’s office to arrest an individual for not wearing a mask — it can only issue citations to businesses for failing to comply. Roberson said such enforcement would be a “last resort” if a business, given multiple opportunities to correct its behavior, still did not comply.

“I know that the businesses we have here in Chatham County really care about their employees and customers and want to keep people safe just as much as we do,” Roberson said in an email. “So I don’t think this is going to be a problem for us.”

The office emphasized that it’s “always available” to public concerns about violations of the order by people or businesses. For individuals, who can’t be cited or arrested for not wearing a mask, that might mean a brief conversation or distribution of further information.

“‘Enforcement’ is just a small part of what we do at the sheriff’s office,” Roberson said. “We do a lot more than write tickets and take people to jail. We want to be able to help educate people as to what the order requires in order to save lives.”

Roberson, a Democrat who was appointed sheriff in 2016 and won re-election in 2018, struck that tone in his statement and follow-up email interview, both of which were issued through office spokesperson Rik Stevens. Roberson acknowledged an ongoing mix of statewide and local orders can “get confusing for people who want to follow the rules, but don’t know exactly which rules to follow.”

Alongside his clearing up of enforcement — it was the first item in his statement — Roberson also highlighted how masks “are not required at all times in public.” Cooper’s executive order spelled out 10 settings where masks are required, most notably retail businesses, restaurants and “certain high-density occupational settings where social distancing is difficult.”But, as Roberson noted, there are no mentioned requirements for masks in private workplaces, homes or outside public places such as parks.

The executive order also lists exemptions for wearing masks, including children under 11 years old, people who are “actively eating or drinking” or “strenuously exercising” and anyone whose medical/behavioral condition or disability would be inhibited by wearing a mask. (Listed examples: someone who has trouble breathing or cannot put on/remove a mask without assistance.)

“The order seems to get that everyone can’t wear a mask all the time and there are plenty of exceptions built in to protect people for whom wearing a mask might make things worse,” Roberson said. “We understand that, too, and we want to be sensitive to people with special needs.”

Chatham County took a similar explanatory tone in a statement released Wednesday. The county board of health had unanimously passed a motion last Monday urging the county board of commissioners to require masks in government buildings while “strongly encouraging them” in public settings. Cooper’s executive order last Wednesday, of course, trumped that.

In its statement, the county said COVID-19 “continues to be a public health crisis” and highlighted mask-wearing as a way to combat it. As of Tuesday, both the county and the state’s coronavirus dashboards listed Chatham County as having 947 confirmed coronavirus cases and 42 deaths.

“Wearing a face covering is important when coming into close contact with others, because COVID-19 can be transmitted even before symptoms develop,” interim public health director Mike Zelek said in the release. “Remember, my mask protects you. Your mask protects me. Face coverings are a critical piece in preventing the virus from spreading.”

Chatham County’s public health department will continue to work with numerous agencies — among them the Chatham Health Alliance, Chatham County Schools and nonprofits — to collect and distribute face coverings. It highlighted Masks for Many, a community drive gathering masks and other PPE for frontline workers and “vulnerable populations” in the county.

Mike Wiley, a Pittsboro-based author, playwright and activist who helped create the project, said the effort has led to the donation of more than 1,500 masks to organizations all over the county, including 500 to Chatham County Schools and 200 to the Hispanic Liaison.

“We still need to raise $5,000 to cover those costs,” Wiley said in an interview, “but if we are able to raise more than that, we will make as many more as we can.”

Roberson said recent efforts, including the mask mandate and Cooper’s extension of Phase 2 to at least July 17, are “an attempt, albeit an imperfect one, to strike a balance” between curbing the spread of COVID-19 and giving people more freedom to be outside their homes.

As a former paramedic, Roberson said he takes medical advice seriously and recognizes COVID-19 as a “very real health crisis.” People he’s personally known have died from coronavirus in the county, and families he has known have lost loved ones.

“At the same time, I know people need to work,” he said. “People want to get out of the house. They need to be able to get out to take care of their mental health and spiritual health, too. So there needs to be a balance. I think this most recent order attempts to help people find a way to gain that balance while we are still in a state of pandemic."

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.


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