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Butler County police officials: See someone without a mask, don’t call us

Vernon Burge, 60, from Hamilton, wears a mask as he rides his bike along High Street Wednesday, July 8, 2020 in Hamilton. Burge is for the mask ordinance set forth by Govnernor Dewine in counties with level 3 or level for public health emergency status. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
Vernon Burge, 60, from Hamilton, wears a mask as he rides his bike along High Street Wednesday, July 8, 2020 in Hamilton. Burge is for the mask ordinance set forth by Govnernor Dewine in counties with level 3 or level for public health emergency status. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

While Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones made national headlines when he said “we are not the mask police,” residents are encouraged to notify their local health departments of violators instead of local law enforcement agencies.

On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine mandated mask wearing in public in multiple counties earlier this week — including Butler — after a new state data system determined they had very high exposure and spread of the coronavirus The color-coded system is based on seven data indicators ranging from new cases per capita to sustained increases in emergency room visits, according to the health district.

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Then on Thursday, DeWine said Butler County was one of three counties approaching Level 4, the most severe level which would would lead to an order that people only leave their homes for supplies and services.

From June 24 to 30, there were 181 coronavirus cases reported in Butler County, the most weekly cases reported in the county since the start of the pandemic earlier this year, the governor said. The average new cases reported each day nearly doubled from 15 to 29 between June 16 and July 3.

There were 12 counties, including Butler and Montgomery, in Level 3, an increase from seven counties last week. Butler, Hamilton and Cuyahoga counties were the three Level 3 counties at risk for moving to Level 4.

Minutes after DeWine’s press conference Tuesday, Jones said he objected to what he described as an overreach of state government infringing on individual liberties.

He also said his department — and other police agencies in Butler County — are already fully engaged with fighting crime, often with dwindling personnel and financial resources brought on since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.

Wearing a protective mask, Jones said, “should be left up to the individual.”

Instead of calling police, residents should contact their local health departments that will take all complaints from the public about persons not wearing masks, and will follow up as they are able, according to the Butler County General Health District. No fines are planned at this time unless a particular city has established its own face covering ordinance.

The requirement to wear a facial covering shall continue for a county identified in the order until that county no longer is designated at Red/Level 3 or Purple/Level 4 in the Public Health Advisory System.

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Butler County was one of seven Ohio counties designated for the mandatory mask order for those out in public and unable to maintain social distancing from others. Face masks must also be worn while waiting for and using public transportation, as well as taxis, ride-sharing vehicles or a private care service, said Jennifer Bailer, county health commissioner.

The use of face coverings can limit the release of infected droplets when talking, coughing, and/or sneezing, as well as reinforce physical distancing, she said.

Several county agencies announced on Wednesday that 150,000 free masks would be distributed to local residents at fire stations and local businesses. The county has not released the dates and times of the distribution.

Fairfield, Hamilton and Middletown police chiefs said they support the wearing of masks, but said it’s a health-related order from the governor and those who want to report violations should call their local health department. They said police would respond to any mask complaints if there was a possible dangerous situation that needed defused.

Middletown police Chief David Birk compared the mask ordinance to the no-smoking policy Ohio enacted in December 2006 when police encouraged residents to report violations to the health department.

“We don’t have the manpower or resources,” said Birk, adding the department typically has six officers on patrol.

He said it’s “unrealistic” to think police could respond to every call about mask violations.

Doug Day, public information officer for the Fairfield Police Department, said officers will not issue citations related to violations of the order.

Police are asking that the public not call the department’s local emergency communication center (911) or its non-emergency number when a person is spotted in public without a mask.