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Thurston County Sheriff facing recall after saying he would not enforce mask mandate

A sign requiring a face mask at SpeakEasy Bar & Grill on May 09, 2020 in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

A statewide mask mandate requires Washington state residents to wear face coverings in most public spaces, with a few exceptions, to limit the spread of COVID-19. In a statement posted to social media at the end of June, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office said it recommended everyone take safety precautions and wear a mask, but that it would not criminally enforce the mandate.

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza is now facing a recall over that statement, and a judge has ruled that the recall effort can move forward.

Snaza’s brother is the sheriff of Lewis County, who had said publicly that he would not enforce the mask mandate saying, “don’t be a sheep.”

John Snaza, however, previously said he would avoid blanket statements.

“I would just hate to tell somebody that I’m not enforcing something before I hear out what the complaint actually is so that I can talk to the citizen that’s making the complaint and then deal with the issue that the complaint is about,” he said. “And to say that I’m not going to do something, I’m not on that that side. And by making a blanket statement that we don’t, we’re not going to enforce that kind of stuff is not fair to the rest of the citizens.”

That was what he said the day before the written statement in which he vowed no criminal enforcement.

What is law enforcement’s role under Gov. Inslee’s mask mandate?

“The unfortunate part is that when I put it out, I didn’t use the word discretion in my memo that I sent out to the citizens,” Snaza explained. “And I was basing my decision off of our Thurston County health director … at the time, and she had stated that the police should not be enforcing and harassing the public about wearing a mask at her guidance and direction. And that’s what she expressed to us.”

“What I didn’t do right was when I sent it out, I should have used the word ‘discretion’ more. And then I shouldn’t have said ‘not enforce,’ and that was the mistake I made,” he added.

While he encouraged his deputies to wear masks, Snaza did also say it was a judgment call. He recognized that there are times when there may not be time to put on a mask if they’re dealing with something that demands immediate attention.

“What I asked my deputies to do is make sure that your bring your mask and you put your mask on when it’s appropriate and when it’s needed,” Snaza said. “But I do understand that there’s [discussion about] whether the deputy should be wearing a mask the whole time he or she’s on shift or not. And that’s something that I have given them the, if you will, again, the word discretion to decide when it should be appropriate to put that mask on. And when they can take it off in the car.”

Snaza wanted to let the citizens and deputies know that he would not make criminals out of people who didn’t wear masks, but rather it would be a chance to educate someone on why they should wear one.

“I understand that people are on both sides of the fence on wearing or not wearing a mask, and that the governor has made it mandatory, and that I’m asking for them to wear masks and letting them know that it is not my intent to make them criminals out of not wearing a mask, but educating them as to why they should,” Snaza said. “And if I could take it back, I wish that I had been able to explain it better. Not only the … written memo, if you will, to my deputies and to the citizens, but maybe explain it better to anybody who asks today.”

He liked Ursula’s suggestion of rewording his statement as: “I require you all to wear masks, but I understand that there will be times when you just can’t.”

Snaza did add that the majority of his deputies are wearing masks.

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