Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton has been the topic of much conversation in the past week over the issue of COVID 19 mask orders and their enforcement.

Holton said on Monday that there was confusion over whether local law enforcement was in charge of enforcing the Governor’s mandatory masking order.

“My decision early this week was based on the amount of phone calls I was getting,” Holton began. “People were asking if they were going to be arrested if they didn’t wear a mask or if I would arrest somebody for not wearing a mask, both sides of that. So, we just put out basically the same reference that we did when the travel ban started, that we’re not stopping people and that people are free to do their own business.”

Holton explained at what point he and his staff would step in during the masking process.

“If a business owner or the staff at a business is asking people to wear masks and a person refuses, and then also refuses to leave, we’ll go and enforce trespassing,” he said. “If somebody wants to get disorderly or gets violent about it or argumentative, then we’ll enforce for disorderly conduct. Certainly businesses have every right to require a mask if they want to, and if someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, then they certainly don’t have to patronize those businesses.”

Holton said the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office has a limited staff and only a few phone lines to cover the entire county.

“We have a limited number of 9-1-1 lines and even administrative lines into our communications center,” he said. “If we’re taking a lot of calls, then emergency calls are not going to come through. So, all of these can be reported right to public health and there’s a process to deal with that, but it’s certainly not a law enforcement issue. Then again, even if I was so inclined, and I’m not inclined to be the social distancing police, but even if I was, we don’t have the resources for that. I would have to stop investigating our normal everyday crimes, and that’s not something I’m willing to do.”

Holton said the behavior he’s been seeing over this issue goes against the grain of how people usually treat each other in Ravalli County.

“You can see the impact of this even in our own county,” he said. “It would be nice if people could be civil, but that’s the biggest thing here is that everybody has individual decisions to make, but we can certainly respect each other. As angry as people are, it’s pretty disheartening for my sake. As far as the Governor’s order goes, that was very clear. Even in the Governor’s directive, he directs law enforcement to first try to educate and warn and not use criminal means, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

The Ravalli County Health Officer has submitted her resignation stating that local elected officials have refused to enforce the governor’s masking order.

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