Lincoln County officials will not enforce mask mandate, citing legal ramifications
New Mexico State Police will begin to enforce the statewide amended emergency public health order which requires the use of face coverings in public.
However, until there is an order stating that local law enforcement can legally issue citations, Lincoln County law enforcement will not seek out individuals not wearing a face mask to issue citations.
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"My department will not be enforcing it. If you are afraid (of contracting COVID), wear a mask. If you are not afraid don't wear one. It is an individual's choice. We have crimes we are investigating and trying to solve," said Lincoln County Sheriff Robert Shepperd,
According to Village of Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford, officials have been waiting since July 3 for an order that would mitigate any potential lawsuits by the public since it is not a law.
"We are following all the governor's directives, but we just cannot go around issuing citations to people not wearing a face mask because it is not a law. Until it is a law, we will continue to educate the public and ask for their cooperation," Crawford said.
The risk for lawsuits raised concerns with local law enforcement which led Crawford to request a written document from the Attorney General stating that "they could issue the citations without worry of being sued."
"It is such a grey area. We have been following all health orders and have stressed the importance of stopping the spread of the virus through our community for public safety and health reasons. We are concerned about the virus and will continue to do all we can (within the law) to protect our citizens," he said.
"We are doing everything we can to educate the public about safe practices to prevent the spreading of the virus here. We have not issued any citations as of yet," said Ruidoso police chief Darren Hooker.
Village officials stated they have been following all health orders and have stressed the importance of stopping the spread of the virus through education.
"Until further notice, we will continue to do what we have been since the beginning (March) of all of this. We were informed by our insurance company, that we could be at risk from potential lawsuits for issuing citations when it is not a law. The have informed us not to. It is just too risky," said Crawford.
"We will follow the governors guidelines and will educate to see that people are safe," he said.
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The new health order includes a 14-day mandatory quarantine for all out of state visitors and mandatory face-coverings in public. Violators are subject to a $100 fine and could even get six months in county jails.
New Mexico Supreme Court to hear arguments
Portions of the state's public health order are already being challenged in court.
It will be up to the New Mexico Supreme Court to decide what authority the state has to enforce certain provisions or the order. Arguments will be presented during an Aug. 4 remote hearing.
About a dozen business owners and companies sued the state in May, challenging Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s authority to levy $5,000 fines for violating the public health orders. The plaintiffs argue that state law authorizes fines of $100 or less in such cases, not the $5,000-per-day penalty cited by state officials.
Seek help if showing symptoms
Anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 should contact local health care providers.
For information visit the New Mexico Department of Health website or call the Coronavirus hotline at 1-855-600-3453.
Lincoln County recorded 16 positive cases of COVID-19 since March, and no deaths related to the disease.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Pamela L. Bonner may be reached at Pbonner@RuidosoNews.com, Pam Bonner on Facebook, @Pamelalbonner1 on Twitter, or by phone at 575-202-5555.