Police are receiving calls about residents disregarding a rule that requires face masks or coverings in businesses, indoor public spaces and in outdoor places where social-distancing standards cannot be maintained.
Considering the political flashpoint that masks have become, it’s not surprising that some are choosing to disregard the mandate put in place earlier this month by Dirk Wilke, the state’s interim health officer. After all, reports from across the nation hinted there might be trouble.
In response, Grand Forks Police Department officers are choosing to first educate violators rather than criminalize them.
“We want to emphasize education, getting people to voluntarily comply, because obviously it's a big step,” Grand Forks Police Department Lt. Travis Benson recently told the Herald. “It's very different from anything that anybody around us historically (has) seen.”
It sure is. And considering that, should police, in light of rising coronavirus numbers and evidence that masks work, crack down on violators?
No. The approach being taken by Grand Forks police is best.
As of Thursday, Grand Forks police had taken 11 calls in the first days of the statewide mandate. Of those, four resulted in written reports; nobody was charged or ticketed.
But here is what’s important: Police actually have the option to charge violators, and those who break the law could face fines up to $1,000.
The potential for fines is what was missing all along, and that potential should help reduce the number of people who still choose not to wear a mask. The statewide order also takes pressure off businesses, many of which had previously required mask use but had few options to deal with those who didn’t oblige.
While we do hope police will crack down on repeat offenders or aggressive violators, charging first-time offenders could get dicey. Too much subjectivity comes into play, fairness could be an issue and questions inevitably arise.
How much time will officers spend responding to alleged violations? Will additional resources or officers be made available to police departments that do attempt blanket enforcement? Do we really want to put officers in a situation that could lead to some violent incident when a calm discussion would be a better alternative?
Police still should respond when necessary, break up mask-related altercations, help businesses maintain order and remind violators of their obligation. They are now backed by their ability to charge violators – it’s the proverbial teeth that were missing in previous mask requests and resolutions.
This is all similar to discussions a decade ago about texting while driving. Many felt proposed laws were unenforceable, but proponents believed that simply adding some sort of official penalty was a step forward nonetheless. The laws gave police options and, most important, sent a necessary message to the public.
Recent statewide mask mandates and associated penalties certainly give police options and, similarly, should send a message to North Dakotans. Perhaps this, above all else, is what has been needed.