Hours after Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Washington state residents to cover their faces in public, a Republican sheriff in a rural area of the state's southwest suggested they should be doing no such thing.
"Here's what I say," Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza told the crowd outside a church Tuesday, carrying a megaphone and sporting his green and beige uniform but no mask. "Don't be a sheep."
Few of the people cheering on Snaza covered their faces either, according to video of the scene taken by the Daily Chronicle of Centralia, Wash. Indeed, the words on a billboard above the crowd seemed to capture their feeling about the pandemic: "Oh, no! A virus. Quick -- burn the bill of rights."
With coronavirus infections rapidly spreading across the American South and West and more states making masks a requirement, dozens of sheriffs are staging a rebellion against state governments. An adherence to their interpretation of the Constitution, they say, comes before any kind of public-health advice.
The trend of "constitutionalist sheriffs" standing up against state laws is hardly new. Many of the country's most prominent law enforcement officials, like Arizona's Joe Arpaio, rose to fame on such campaigns.
But the pandemic has created a particularly ripe opportunity to rebel against left-leaning governors, as law enforcement officials feel emboldened to speak up on behalf of the more conservative voters who put them in office.
Since April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said people should cover their faces in public to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But Snaza said he did not believe masks were effective, arguing they should be optional.
"My frustration is we continue to listen to the governor's requests without asking questions, without saying: 'Well wait a minute, there's the other side to this,'" Snaza told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
He is not alone. In Nevada and North Carolina on Thursday, several sheriffs said their Democratic governors' mask requirements were "unconstitutional and unenforceable." After five California counties ignored a similar directive, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to withhold state funds. Another Washington state sheriff called Inslee an "idiot."
As they battle through viral Facebook posts and appearances on local TV and radio, these mostly Republican sheriffs have effectively blocked their governors' orders. If they refuse to enforce their rules, it is unclear who else will.
Public-health officials have insisted that masks are an easy way to protect the whole population.
"Everybody should wear a mask when out in public," Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease specialist, told the Sacramento Press Club this week. "It should not be a political issue. It is purely a public health issue."
At a news conference Wednesday, Inslee spoke out against the sheriffs objecting to his "Mask Up, Washington" campaign, saying that mask wearers should not be compared to "barnyard animals."
"We have to be disappointed in any law enforcement officer who would encourage illegal behavior," Inslee said. Mask wearing, he added, "is about demonstrating our respect and care for the other people around us."
Still, two Washington sheriffs insisted they can only "educate" residents instead of strictly enforcing the mask order. Snaza's twin brother, who heads the sheriff's office in a neighboring county, said he will not require his own deputies to cover their faces, fearing it could put them in jeopardy in high-risk situations.
In North Carolina, at least 10 sheriffs said this week that they would not be carrying out a similar directive from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The minor nature of the offenses as well as a lack of resources, many said, meant they had more serious things to worry about.
"I certainly encourage people to be careful and take safety precautions," Wes Tripp, sheriff of Halifax County, wrote on social media, according to WWBT. "The wearing of a mask is a personal decision, not one of a governor in Raleigh."
While a wave of newly elected black Democratic sheriffs has radically changed the face of law enforcement in North Carolina, many of those who spoke out against Cooper's mask order were white, male and Republican.