Mask Enforcement

A sign in downtown Murphys lists ways for visitors to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, including wearing a face covering to protect others.

Calaveras County businesses might have been dealt more than they can handle with California’s mask mandate.

Jason Hauer, co-owner of Arnold Ace Home Center, says a recent altercation between an employee and a customer over the mask mandate “could have gotten ugly” when the disgruntled patron reportedly placed his hand on his sidearm while they were arguing in the parking lot.

A report of the Aug. 12 incident was filed with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, in which it was alleged that the employee asked the customer to wear a mask upon entering the store and subsequently provided him with one. However, after walking around the store the customer allegedly threw the mask down at the register and told the employee to “come outside,” threatening to engage in a physical fight.

“The subject had an open carry on his thigh,” the sheriff’s office reported. Once outside, he placed his hand on the gun but did not pull it out.

According to the employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, a crowd had gathered in the parking lot, some videotaping the argument, which he believes caused the suspect to leave without further incident.

On Wednesday, the sheriff’s office stated that the department has obtained video footage from the business and is working to identify the suspect.

But the investigation isn’t enough for Hauer, who believes that local authorities have placed business owners “at the tip of the spear” in a battle to uphold the statewide mask mandate, ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom on June 18 to combat rising COVID-19 cases.

“It’s really a thankless job that our employees go through and have to deal with. People are at their absolute worst right now,” Hauer told the Enterprise. “Why can’t our government leadership lead the charge on this – like our sheriff, etc.? Why is it left to mom-and-pop stores to enforce this?”

Between March 24 and Aug. 22, the sheriff’s office has received roughly 25 calls for service involving mask advisory orders. 

Hauer disagrees with Sheriff Rick DiBasilio’s decision to publicly announce that his department would not be enforcing the mandate by issuing citations or making arrests.

“It is up to individuals and businesses to enforce/comply with the order and a business can enforce the order or ask the person to leave. If the person refuses to leave the business, we will address the trespass issue separately,” DiBasilio wrote in a June 18 Facebook post, joining a scattering of municipal governments across the state who came out against the order.

The following day, Tuolumne County Sheriff Bill Pooley put out a similar message stating that his position was to “rely on education” as an enforcement strategy and to work closely with health officials.

In Amador County, Undersheriff Gary Redman instructed employees not to respond to complaints of individuals not wearing masks, due to the absence of “a law” requiring their use.

Notably, under the California Emergency Services Act, if the governor declares a state of emergency, he/she may “make, amend, and rescind orders and regulations” and “the orders and regulations shall have the force and effect of law.”

Yet officials are still debating if and how the mask mandate should be enforced, as well as who should be enforcing it.

In response to an inquiry from the Enterprise, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office on Monday issued the following statement:

“The Sheriff has not told anyone to not wear a mask and has encouraged the mask wearing. He stated he was not in favor of issuing citations or making arrests for not utilizing a mask. The Health Department is responsible for enforcing the order.”

Calaveras County Public Health receives calls from community members about noncompliant businesses and notifies those businesses of their failure to comply, according to Health and Human Services Agency Director Kristin Stranger, but a citation has never been issued by the department.

On Tuesday, after much deliberation, the county Board of Supervisors voted not to enforce COVID-19 guidelines, lamenting a lack of direction from the state among many other concerns in holding businesses legally accountable for noncompliance.

“This is not one of our finer days,” Chairperson Merita Callaway said after the resolution failed to pass.

According to District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi, the proposed resolution was aimed at local businesses that have been continually noncompliant with state and county rules.

Garamendi said that a handful of businesses including the Murphys Historic Hotel “thumbing their nose at us” are setting unfair standards for businesses that choose to comply.

Thus, the brunt of mask enforcement continues to weigh upon the shoulders of rule-abiding businesses, big and small, who bear the burden with varying levels of enthusiasm.

According to Murphys Business Association President Michelle Plotnik, some local businesses, like Arnold Ace Home Center, were requiring masks prior to the governor’s executive order while others have shied away from the task, and a few oppose the rule altogether.

Plotnik thinks businesses with high foot traffic, like hardware and grocery stores, have had the most trouble with noncompliant customers. For others, signs erected by business associations in visible parts of town and a general knowledge of the statewide mandate have made the transition to masking-up relatively smooth, such as at Plotnik’s Murphys-based architect office, where she meets clients by appointment only.

Some business owners and managers have agreed that the governor’s order made mask enforcement easier, dissuading visitors from assuming rural California towns are mask-free zones. However, co-owner of Arnold Ace Home Center, Gary Hauer, says that the sheriff’s public statement against mask enforcement has provided fuel for dissent.

“I continually hear from people, ‘The sheriff’s not enforcing it. Why are you enforcing it?’ They misquote him. … I’ve broken up fights between customers that have a difference of opinion,” Hauer said. “If they believe the sheriff is not in favor of this then, obviously, they feel like they have a powerful person in their court.”

At Young’s Payless Market IGA in Copperopolis, owner Kevin Young “didn’t think it was worth our safety” to require employees to enforce the mask mandate, according to Manager Tammy Andrada.

Andrada echoed that the sheriff’s vocal position regarding the mandate “did not help” the situation.

“People say, ‘What are you going to do? You’re not going to arrest me. … You just don’t even want to go there with some people,” Andrada said. “We have a sign outside respectfully (asking) that you wear a mask in the building. We don’t tell them they can’t come in if they don’t have one on.”

Yet Andrada hopes that customers choose to wear a mask, for her own safety and that of her employees.

“My dad is 83. I want to be able to see him,” she said. “People just need to have compassion for other people. We’re all out on the frontlines having to deal with it, day in and day out, following the rules. We just ask that people follow the rules like everyone else.”

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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