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Local Law Enforcement Hopes Tightened Mandates Don’t Become ‘Mask Issue’

File Photo – Wheeling Police officials are hopeful that the public complies with recent state mask mandate tightening measures.

WHEELING — Local law enforcement officials say they are hopeful that recent state mask mandate tightening measures will not turn into a “mask issue” for their agencies.

Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said he hopes the public will comply with state mask mandates and his department will only respond to mask calls that escalate into issues of trespassing or disorderly conduct.

“We feel better about responding to and enforcing issues of trespass or disorderly conduct rather than a blanket obstruction of justice based on a mandate about wearing an article of clothing, with certain exceptions,” Schwertfeger explained. “It’s just too broad.”

He said if a person enters a business and is asked to comply with wearing a mask and they refuse to do so, that business has the right to ask them to leave the premises. If that person then refuses to leave, Schwertfeger said it then becomes an issue of trespassing and the Wheeling Police will respond to the incident.

“If they become agitated or disorderly, that is also a police issue and we will respond,” Schwertfeger added.

“Public health crises require community commitment, and so my hope is that folks will just wear a mask and try to keep the spread down. … If you’re trying to make a statement or you just disagree, then you’re not welcome. And that’s where the business owners need to stand up and say, ‘you’re not welcome here, so it’s time to go,'” he added.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced last Friday a tightening of his executive order requiring the wearing of face masks or coverings in public indoor places. While refusing to wear a mask itself has no criminal penalty, Justice said businesses can call law enforcement if a person refuses to wear a mask.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine took a more subtle approach while recently discussing his state’s revised mask mandate for retail outlets that went into effect Monday. DeWine said the revised mandate is meant to ensure the safety of all Ohioans, but he does not recommend residents contact law enforcement if they witness a person not complying with the order. He said he is hoping to rely on the “goodwill” of residents to follow the order.

Schwertfeger said as of Wednesday his department has not received any calls to remove a person from a business for not wearing a mask.

“I always remain confident in our community doing the right thing,” Schwertfeger said. “To my knowledge we have not had one call.”

He said dispatch is working with the police department to better vet incoming calls related to mask issues. He said if it’s a matter of repeated calls of someone not wearing a mask that’s working in a restaurant, then that’s a health department issue.

Belmont County Chief Deputy James Zusak echoes many of the same sentiments as Schwertfeger, saying that the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department will only respond to mask calls that escalate into a bigger issue than just someone not wearing a mask.

He said a business owner or employee has the right to ask someone to put a mask on if that’s part of the business’s policy, and they have the right to ask them to leave if the person will not comply. He said if it escalates to the point where the person won’t leave the business and they cause “a scene” or issue, then a deputy can be called to the scene.

“We will show up at that point,” Zusak commented. He said deputies will initially ask them to put a mask on, and if they don’t comply they will be asked to leave the business premises.

“If they become belligerent or an aspect to where they just don’t listen to us — then it poses a problem and they could be arrested for criminal trespassing at that point and whatever else they may talk themselves into,” Zusak commented.

He said it is important to know that they are not going to arrest someone just on the mask issue alone.

Zusak said the sheriff department did have one incident at a Belmont County business Monday that did escalate to the point where deputies had to arrest an individual after becoming very disorderly after refusing to put a mask on or leave the business.

Zusak said he is hopeful these types of incidents will not become a regular issue for the department. When asked if he had any concerns that these types of calls might become more prevalent in the future thus possibly pulling deputies away from other duties or calls, he quickly dismissed the idea, saying they will always prioritize calls.

“We don’t want to make this into a mask thing,” Zusak commented. He said they are just trying to uphold a store’s policy. “That’s just their (a business’s) policy and that’s what’s in place now,” he added.


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