Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr. says his office won’t force residents to wear masks, but will respond to business owners who ask patrons to leave for not wearing masks at their facilities. The patron could face a trespassing charge, according to a news release.


Woods was responding to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s mandate that Arkansans wear masks in public beginning July 20. According to Woods, if business owners require those visiting their facilities to wear masks, everyone entering the businesses should adhere to it.


“Enforcement for Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office will not involve issuing citations for violation of the governor’s executive order. However, we will respond to businesses within our jurisdiction for patrons who refuse to comply and remain at the business after being asked to leave by the private business owner,” said Woods. “This may constitute a violation of trespassing, which we will enforce at the request of the private business owner.”


On Friday, July 17, Hutchinson announced the mandate and hosted a call with law enforcement agencies regarding the statewide mask order.


“We believe this is important from a public health standpoint that’s been adopted nationally,” Hutchinson said at Friday’s press conference. “This is something that is necessary in Arkansas with the cases that we’ve had.”


A violation of the order will result in a misdemeanor that’s punishable by a fine of up to $500. According to Hutchinson, law enforcement cannot detain or arrest offenders. However, first-time offenders can expect a warning.


“… All of these decisions in terms of enforcement are subject to local priority and that is a prerogative of the local law sheriff,” said Hutchinson. “It is the prerogative of the local police department to set their enforcement priorities. And so, I defer to them on that. It is an option they can utilize to educate, to enforce and to make sure that we all stay healthy in our communities.”


Woods was one of many sheriffs on the call Friday who voiced his opinion on the order.


“Although wearing cloth masks alone is unlikely to prevent someone from inhaling microscopic virus particles, as sheriffs we do understand that it is still crucial now in the battle against COVID-19,” Woods said. “We’re just concerned as to how enforcement might compile or complicate an already tense time for members of law enforcement. I have communicated with Governor Hutchinson and he has deferred enforcement of his executive order to local law enforcement.”


Woods explained that due to citizens’ mistrust of law enforcement, the mask mandate comes at a time that could be potentially difficult for law enforcement.


“Presented with the potential to have to enforce such a mandate when some people feel they have a right not to be forced to wear a mask, is challenging at a time when tension is still high,” he said. “The Supreme Court ruled that all prisoners have the right to adequate medical care while incarcerated and evidence of officials’ ‘deliberate indifference’ is a violation of that right. Many sheriffs, including myself, have been inundated with lawsuits filed by detainees alleging a violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause of their 8th Amendment Right under the United States Constitution because they aren’t tested for COVID-19 upon demand.”