Face coverings to be required in public in San Juan County

The San Juan County Board of Health agreed in a six-to-one vote to support an order from the Public Health Officer to require face coverings. The order, which will begin at midnight May 15, will start by strongly urging all people in the county to wear a facial covering when in public.

“I wanted it in place for the weekend so we can begin to make efforts as [potential island visitors] come back on the weekend,” Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James said. “If we can establish the culture, our current citizens are pretty good about wearing masks, and if we can just establish that culture that it’s a mask-wearing place, we’re ahead.”

Though travel is restricted to essential-purposes only, during a meeting on May 11, James had noted he saw an abundance of people on the islands who were not following the same strict guidelines islanders have grown accustomed to — voluntary mask-wearing and social distancing.

The decision to require face coverings was made during a special meeting on May 15. Face coverings was used as the term as opposed to masks because the county also encourages the use of bandanas or scarves if a mask is not readily available. A second part of the order, a requirement to wear masks in public, will go into effect once the county enters Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased “Safe Start” reopening initiative.

The single nay came from County Councilmember Jamie Stephens, who questioned the legitimacy of a facial covering requirement when there is not any enforcement. James said that he had spoken with Sheriff Ron Krebs who had made it clear to him that the county’s law enforcement does not have enough staff to enforce said rules..

“Once in Phase 2, it will be enforceable. This will give the community time to prepare, understand, and ask questions about the order, and it will allow Dr. James and others time to fine-tune and educate about what implementation and enforcement will look like,” Cowan said in a statement to the press. “Until then, we continue to urge, recommend, strongly persuade, and advise that everyone cover their face when indoors in a public space, or outside when social distancing is impossible.”

County Council Chairperson Rick Hughes said he supports the mask requirement and added that it is akin to the traditional business standard of “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” He also suggested the county look into potential sources of funding to assist local businesses in providing masks for customers should they not have one.

“There’s a lot of really conscientious people that are following the rules even though it’s not required. So there is a relationship between other people that may be less compliant seeing people that are following the rules and when the order comes out, hopefully, some of those people, probably not all, will want to wear the mask just from social pressure,” Board of Health Chairperson Dale Heisinger said. “Obviously there are going to be people that are not going to comply with that, but that would be a step in the right direction out of the gate, in my opinion.”

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