Governor directs sheriffs, police to enforce mask mandate

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wears a Zozobra mask during a news conference at the Roundhouse last month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling on cities and counties throughout New Mexico to help enforce the state’s mask mandate – and slamming those that refuse.

In an opinion column submitted to the Journal, she said she has been appalled at elected officials who deliberately flout the emergency health orders requiring masks and banning mass gatherings – measures intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that’s killed 519 residents since March.

“Too many officials have ignored their duty to their fellow New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said in her column.

The governor didn’t single out anyone by name, but she has clashed repeatedly with Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks – most recently over his plans for an event advertised as a Fourth of July parade, but that he insisted was actually a protest. The Department of Health warned him not to go ahead with it, but the state says he did anyway and will face a penalty.

The governor’s comments come as some elected officials – including the sheriffs of Bernalillo and Cibola counties – say they aren’t enforcing the requirement for New Mexicans to wear masks in public settings.

Others are taking a less strident position, though not committing to citations.

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari said his deputies will remind people of the state health order and, when supplies are available, offer free masks.

“Right now,” he said in an interview, “people are out of work, finances are tough, and I don’t want to further burden people. … We can get a lot further with sugar than salt.”

Deputies always have discretion, Ferrari said, when dealing with minor offenses, such as failing to wear a seat belt.

A spokesman for Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said the agency isn’t enforcing the state order on masks, contending it’s a state responsibility. Deputies will forward calls to State Police, spokesman Joseph Montiel said.

Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace said last week that he wouldn’t enforce the order either, saying his agency has more urgent priorities.

Attorney General Hector Balderas made it clear Friday that any law enforcement officer is empowered to enforce the mask mandate, not just State Police. In a letter to the governor, he said that courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the state’s public health orders and that violating the mask mandate is a petty misdemeanor that can result in a $100 fine, six months in jail or both.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department, said the agency’s officers now have the option of issuing citations, based on the attorney general’s guidance. Other city departments, he said, will also continue enforcement and education on the health order.

Local law enforcement agencies last week also heard from the Governor’s Office directly.

Lujan Grisham’s office issued a directive Friday instructing officers to issue citations for “clear and willful” violations of the mask requirement.

The memo calls for enforcement in outdoor public areas “when a distance of at least six feet cannot be maintained from any non-household members.” The governor also directed officers to respond to any reports of customers who refuse to a wear a mask or face covering inside a business.

Citations, the governor’s directive said, should be reserved for people who intentionally disregard the requirement, not for inadvertent failures to comply.

The directive doesn’t directly mention how officers should handle protests, rallies or political demonstrations.

But it “applies to all clear and willful violations wherever they might occur in public,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Tuesday. “Gatherings are and remain a significant risk for transmission, even more so if individuals are not masked.”

In her opinion column, the governor was blunt about the responsibility to enforce the order. She said, “Words fail my disappointment in those New Mexico officials who have bucked their responsibility, who have betrayed their constituents and neighbors with cavalier and dangerous behavior amid this unprecedented public health crisis.”

Debate over the mask mandate may now play out city by city.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said he expects the mask mandate to be discussed by the City Commission, which is empowered to set policy for the city’s Police Department.

But Cobb said he hopes residents will embrace masks as an effective strategy for limiting the spread of COVID-19. He noted that they’re recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We need to continue to encourage people – this is a real deal,” he said. “This is not fake news.”

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