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In this exclusive interview, Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson discusses the latest state executive order regarding the wearing of masks and face coverings. The order, which took effect at 5 p.m. Friday, requires face coverings or masks in some settings; the Chatham Sheriff’s Office released a statement on Thursday addressing it. In this Q&A, the News + Record queried the sheriff about the issue of enforcement, the public response to the sheriff’s statement, and more.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of discussion around the issue of enforcement of Gov. Cooper’s order. Next door, for example, in Lee County, the Sheriff Tracy Carter expressly said he’s not going to enforce the order, while the Sanford Police Department announced it was — which could send a mixed signal to businesses. What’s the official position of your office when it comes to the question of enforcement?
SHERIFF MIKE ROBERSON: The Order is an attempt to save lives by preventing the spread of the virus. The virus is real and is killing people. While most deaths we have seen so far have been of older people, the carriers seem more likely to be younger people who may not be showing symptoms. It is difficult for some to believe what they can't see.
The most recent efforts appear to be an attempt, albeit an imperfect one, to strike a balance between slowing down the spread of COVID-19 that is evident by the latest hospitalizations and allowing people more freedom to be outside their homes. It is based on an honor system for individuals, but holds retail establishments and businesses accountable for their employees and patrons. Our Office will seek to educate people and help them mitigate the risks of infection in conjunction with the help of the Chatham Public Health Department. Enforcement action based on the Order would be a last resort for us, and would only be taken if a business refused to comply after many attempts to correct behavior.
The new executive order addresses specifics about who can be cited for a violation (businesses only) and that masks are not required at all times when in public. Your office released a statement shortly after the Governor’s announcement. What’s generally been the response to your office’s statement?
ROBERSON: Our attempt was to simplify and summarize the most recent order and let the public know what it actually says, not what many people think it says.
With several orders being issued, not just by the Governor, but also by surrounding local governments, it can get confusing for people who want to follow the rules, but don’t know exactly which rules to follow. The response so far has been very positive. 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. We understand that too and we want to be sensitive to people with special needs.
In the department’s statement, it says: “If any person believes that a person is violating some element of the new requirement to wear a face covering in some settings, they are encouraged to contact law enforcement here in Chatham County at 919-542-2911.” Can you give some specific advice about that? When should someone call law enforcement, and when should someone NOT call?
ROBERSON: We want the public to know that we are always available to respond if they have a concern that someone is violating the law. The Order doesn’t allow us to arrest any individual person just because they’re not wearing a mask and we don’t want to do that. “Enforcement” is just a small part of what we do at the Sheriff’s Office. 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.
If anyone sees a way that we can help with that effort, especially if a business is not trying to keep its patrons or employees safe, we are here to help do that. 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, so I don’t think this is going to be a problem for us. Overcoming this virus will take a team effort by everyone in the community and we are, first and foremost, community members.
Unfortunately, for many, mask-wearing is a political issue. A recent poll illustrated a clear and growing political divide between Democrats and Republicans on mask-wearing habits. Nationally, the percentage of Democrats who reported wearing a mask all the time when leaving home rose from 49% between April 10 and May 4 to 65% between May 8 and June 22. During the same time period, the percentage of Republicans who reported constant mask-wearing rose from 29% to just 35%. As Chatham County’s highest elected office-holder, what’s your reaction – and what’s your department’s official position or advice on wearing masks? And what do you say to those who flatly refused, saying being asked to wear a mask is a violation of their rights?
ROBERSON: The virus is real. Real people have died right here in Chatham County, people I personally know, and families I know have lost loved ones. People may think this is a political issue because of what they’re seeing on TV, but anyone who works at a hospital will tell you that it’s a very real health crisis and it’s not going away. I have experience as a paramedic and I’ve learned firsthand from that experience to take the medical advice we read seriously.
Our younger residents are eager to do life “like normal” and, in many cases, are not seeing the effects of illness. I understand the frustration they feel, but every person I know who has lost a loved one or has suffered through the virus will tell you not to take it lightly. At the same time, I know people need to work. 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.
The mask question is a particularly interesting one given large-scale protests that are taking place across the country, related both to the George Floyd death and the “re-open” movement. Given the recent resurgence in demonstrations related to the Confederate monument in Pittsboro, how has all this made your job and the job of your staff more difficult?
ROBERSON: We all swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and the rights we enjoy. We also understand the fear, frustration, and confusion our community feels. We want to protect the right for everyone to be able to protest peacefully. The few times protests here in Chatham have not been peaceful have been troubling for me personally, because I don’t enjoy watching anyone get hurt, or having to ask our staff to enforce the law in situations where people are trying to communicate feelings that are dear to them. I know also that many businesses have suffered, not only from COVID-19, but also from the negative attention that criminal acts bring to our community.
The protests we have had over the past year have been a lot of work on our staff. We have had 35 protests in Chatham County in the past year and a half. Even if they are not working on the day of a protest event, many of our staff are on standby to respond. This means they are losing time with their families and that has taken its toll on each of us. The majority of these protests have also been unannounced and that gives us very little opportunity to meaningfully prepare. Despite all of that, I could not be more proud of how our staff members have responded appropriately to some very difficult situations and retained their composure and professionalism throughout.