In a three-page letter, Crook County Sheriff John Gautney asked Gov. Kate Brown to lift her COVID-19 restrictions in his rural county and allow residents to celebrate Thanksgiving as they choose and decide how to protect themselves from the virus.
Gautney also said his office would not issue citations to those who ignore the mandates, and instead continue to seek voluntary compliance from citizens.
“I will not have my deputies issuing citations for not wearing a mask or based on who they have for Thanksgiving at their home,” Gautney wrote. “Their home is a sanctuary that the Government has no right under law, or the Constitution, to be able to violate.”
Sheriff’s officials in Deschutes and Jefferson counties said on Saturday they will continue to enforce the governor’s orders through education before issuing citations.
But Brown has made her opinion clear.
“I expect local law enforcement to continue to use an education-first approach,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “But Oregonians need to understand that these rules are enforceable under law.”
Gautney’s letter was posted Thursday on the sheriff’s office Facebook page and drew 645 comments and was shared more than 2,500 times. Gautney wrote it in response to the governor’s “Two Week Freeze,” which shut down public facilities and asks residents to limit social contact during Thanksgiving.
The freeze started Wednesday and comes at a time when new COVID-19 cases are surging in the state. On Saturday, the Oregon Health Authority reported a record 1,509 new cases, and seven new deaths.
Gautney said in his letter that Crook County is not experiencing the same surge as other counties across the state and should not have to face the same restrictions. The county has reported a total of 184 cases and six deaths, as of Saturday.
“We cannot be placed in the same category as those counties,” Gautney wrote. “The one-size-fits-all plan does not work on the rural side of the state.”
Gautney wrote that Brown’s restrictions are having a devastating effect on local businesses and the mental health of the local residents. He said suicide and mental health calls to law enforcement have skyrocketed 188% since January, compared to calls in the same time period last year.
Gautney told the governor that declaring a public health emergency created another state of emergency due to the shutdowns. Many businesses may not recover, he wrote.
Melanie Marlow, owner of Painted Hills Custom Leather on Third Street in Prineville, said she was thrilled to see Gautney’s letter.
The governor’s ongoing shutdowns have been difficult for her business and the neighboring businesses in Prineville, Marlow said.
“It’s much quieter,” Marlow said. “It went from a flow to a drip.”
Marlow counts on customers from out of state and in other parts of Oregon traveling to Prineville to pick up custom leather products that she creates. Usually, when customers comes to town they shop at other stores, dine at restaurants and stay in the hotels, Marlow said.
“That is just not happening at all,” she said.
In his letter, Gautney emphasized it’s his job to protect the county’s residents and their constitutional rights. Residents in the rural county are more independent and believe in taking care of themselves, he wrote. And it is their right to decide if they want to wear a mask.
“People have to be allowed to have the ability to use their common sense and get on with their lives,” he wrote.
Gautney noted in the letter he is not speaking on behalf of the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association or any other sheriff’s office in the state when he says he would not enforce the governor’s order. His office will only educate and ask for voluntary compliance, he wrote.
In Jefferson County, the undersheriff Marc Heckathorn said on Saturday that the office is still enforcing the governor’s orders, and prefers to do so through education, as it has since the pandemic started.
Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jayson Janes said the office is also enforcing the order by starting with education.
“Our philosophy has remained the same,” Janes said. “Education with the goal of voluntary compliance.”
Gautney acknowledged the dangers of the virus and shared his condolences to families that have lost someone to the virus. But he concluded the letter by expressing concern that even more might die from mental health issues under the governor’s shutdown.
“Governor Brown, you need to open our counties for business, allow churches to hold services and schools to open,” Gautney wrote, “or I fear we will see something far worse than we have ever seen before.”