Huntington Sheriff Dept. will 'not be enforcing' mask mandate; Gov. Holcomb drops penalty

A statement from the Huntington County Sheriff’s Office released on Friday says the department will not be enforcing Gov. Holcomb’s mask mandate penalty.

Gov. Holcomb dropped a planned criminal penalty from the statewide face mask mandate that he signed Friday after objections from some law enforcement officials, including the Huntington County Sheriff’s Office, and conservative legislators across the state.

The decision comes after Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb had said Wednesday in announcing the mask requirement that violators could face a misdemeanor charge, while stating that the “mask police will not be patrolling Hoosier streets.”

The executive order on the mask mandate, however, does not mention penalties and describes the move as a step to protect health during the coronavirus outbreak and help ensure that businesses remain open while allowing schools to reopen and operate safely.

“State and local health departments shall be responsible for enforcing compliance through education about the importance of wearing face coverings and dispelling myths and misconceptions about the use and/or benefits for the requirement,” the order said.

The Huntington County Sheriff’s Office has received a number of questions regarding the mandate, and Sheriff Chris Newton says the department will not be enforcing the mask mandate.

“Regardless of any opinion of masks or their impact on COVID-19 good or bad, we must not deviate from the documents which protect our freedoms and liberties. We must guard them at all costs,” Newton said. “The men and women of the Huntington County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the mask mandate as (it) stands.”

According to Newton, the announced order has not been introduced as a bill in the General Assembly and state legislators are not in session.

“The General Assembly could be called into session by the Governor if the ‘public welfare shall require it,’ but this critical step has not taken place,” Newton said. “Indiana’s Attorney General has issued an opinion in which he believes this to be ‘unconstitutional.’ I strongly concur with this opinion.”

Newton says the Sheriff’s Office hopes Huntington County residents will use precaution and wear masks to protect themselves and others.

“A business owner still has the right to refuse service to an individual if their policy dictates they must wear a mask while in the business,” Newton says. “If that individual refuses to leave, after being asked to do so, we will come and do our job as we always have.”

State Attorney General Curtis Hill, who is also a Republican, issued a non-binding opinion Wednesday night, saying Holcomb would be overstepping his authority and that only the Legislature could make violations a criminal offense. That opinion was in response to questions from five Republican state senators regarding Holcomb’s legal power.

The Indiana Senate’s leader praised Holcomb’s decision to drop the possible misdemeanor offense, which could have carried penalties of up to $1,000 in fines and a maximum 180 days in jail.

“Senate Republicans have been in close contact with the governor since his announcement of the new mask mandate earlier this week,” said Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville. “We are very pleased to see that the executive order he signed today does not include a criminal penalty for non-compliance.”

The governor’s office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment about Holcomb’s decision.

Some conservative lawmakers have criticized Holcomb’s mandate announcement for using the state’s emergency law to sidestep the Legislature, which hasn’t met since adjourning this year’s session in March just before widespread coronavirus precautions began.

Several of the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs had indicated they wouldn’t have officers respond solely to calls about face mask violators. Some said they considered Holcomb’s proposed mandate unconstitutional.

The sheriff in Hamilton County, just north of Indianapolis, said he agreed with the attorney general’s opinion that only the Legislature could make a face mask violation illegal.

“Regardless of any opinion of masks or their impact on COVID-19 good or bad, we must not deviate from the documents which protect our freedoms and liberties,” said Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush, a Republican. “We must guard them at all costs. The men and women of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the mask mandate and will consider it null and void.”