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Why aren't local police departments enforcing Pennsylvania's mask mandate?

Ron Musselman
York Dispatch
York City Police Sgt. Rich Kehler wears a mask at Central Market Thursday, July 9, 2020. He said the department is following the governor's orders to wear them. Bill Kalina photo

Whether or not to wear a mask or face covering to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has become a hot-button issue  locally and across the country.

Politicians have sparred over the issue, protests have been held and social media has been abuzz. 

There has been plenty of wrangling in Pennsylvania and other states over how to legally enforce the health mandates regarding mask-wearing and social distancing.

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It’s even had an effect on local police departments, which have not been enforcing the state’s mask-wearing order.

“It’s too volatile of an issue, and there’s bigger crime problems and issues that we need to face as a law enforcement agency, as to whether or not people wear masks,” Northern York County Regional Police Chief Dave Lash said.

Incoming Northern York County Regional Police Chief Dave Lash speaks during a ceremony naming Lash chief at the department in Dover Township Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Lash said his department has handled very few complaints since state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine signed an expanded order on July 1 requiring anyone leaving their home to wear a face-covering mask.

Gov. Tom Wolf has said he has no expectations that local police or state police will enforce the order.

“I don’t think we’ve had a single call since York County entered the green phase last month,” Lash said. “When we do get one, we document that a complaint was made and that’s really the only action we take. We take no enforcement on it. We don’t respond to it.”

Many national retailers have issued mask-wearing mandates in their stores, including Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, Lowe’s and Home Depot. 

In all, 48 of the 50 states have some sort of mask mandate or requirement  as cases surge across the United States, according to Masks4ll, a volunteer organization that promotes wearing a mask.  

In Pennsylvania, most people entering a convenience or retail store are required to wear a mask or face covering, as are the store’s employees. 

Local police departments have distributed masks to their officers. They also are encouraged to practice social distancing, when possible.

York City Police Officer Derek Hartman, the department’s spokesperson, said a few mask complaints have recently been submitted online, through the Crimewatch app or in a phone call. 

“But there hasn’t been a huge spike in calls or anything like that,” he said. “The complaints we get, the violations for not wearing a mask, we can’t do much. We’re actually not the ones that investigate those. They are forwarded to the fire department and code enforcement.”

Springettsbury Township Police Lt. Brian Wilbur said he received a complaint from a woman Thursday about customers and employees not wearing masks at three businesses in the area.

“For any enforcement action as far as mask-wearing, we are tasked with educating the public,” Wilbur said. “We are not allowed to question (the reason) someone is not wearing a mask, so it makes it very difficult for us to do anything unless it turns into something bigger.”

— Ron Musselman can be reached at rmusselman@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @ronmusselman8.