Two Arizona county sheriffs say they refuse to cite or arrest business owners or individuals for violating the state's emergency coronavirus restrictions.
In doing so, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and Mohave County Sheriff Douglas Schuster — both of them elected officials — are tapping into a growing, mostly conservative-led sentiment in the state that the lockdown has gone far enough.
But their refusals are also in clear opposition to Governor Doug Ducey's two-week expansion of the stay-at-home order, as well as the advice of health officials and other people who think opening businesses too early would create dangerous conditions for rapid spread of the infection.
Lamb first revealed his decision on Fox 10 News on Thursday night. Schuster let his feelings be known in a Mohave County Board of Supervisors meeting on Thursday, and his stance was covered by the weekly Standard newspaper. Schuster also put out a statement on his position on Friday.
On Friday, Lamb told Phoenix New Times that if he got a call about a business violating reopening restrictions, he'd send a deputy out to "educate and advise" the owners about Ducey's executive orders. But his deputies won't be writing citations or arresting anyone from this point on.
"In tough times, tough decisions have to be made," said Lamb, a Republican elected to office in 2016. "I'm looking at two laws in each hand [and] going with the one that's 200 years old rather than two days old."
The two-day reference was apparently to Ducey's expansion of most of his emergency orders from April 30 until May 15. Ducey cited the lack of a clear downward trend in the case numbers as his reasoning for leaving the lockdown in place.
Lamb said he put in a "courtesy call" to Ducey's office on Thursday night to let them know he'd be "hitting them hard," but hasn't heard back yet.
"I'm not trying to change his policy, I'm just disagreeing with it, and I won't enforce it. I don't think it's right," he said.
Enforcing the orders to keep businesses closed would be unconstitutional, Lamb explained, and that puts law enforcement in a "tough position."
"I don't want to make criminals out of people who are just trying to keep their business from going under," the sheriff said.
Asked if it were possible that his decision could lead to more infection and death from COVID-19, Lamb compared the disease to the flu and noted that people take risks "every day we walk out the door."
Lamb said he gives condolences to people who have lost friends or family members because of the coronavirus, but somebody "has to have the guts" to stand up to the unconstitutional policies, which have created an "unsustainable" economic situation for the vast majority of Arizonans who haven't gotten sick.
He added that the first two COVID-19 deaths reported in Pinal County were actually a heart attack and an asthma attack, and "didn't have anything to do with COVID but were attributed to COVID." (New Times asked Pinal County Public Health to comment on that statement, and will update this story following a response.)
Sheriff Schuster, in his statement, echoed some of Lamb's concerns about not wanting to make criminals out of citizens trying to "put food on the table." He also criticized the "mixed messages" from government leaders about their policies, which have led to confusion and frustration.
"We see hotels open and welcoming guests, packed retail stores, busy beaches, and our lakes and rivers overflowing with recreational boaters," said Schuster, whose western Arizona county includes Lake Havasu City. "I cannot in good conscious [sic], and will not control the legal free movement of others based on directives that I believe are in conflict with the Constitution. Law enforcement should not become the social distancing police. Therefore, I will not issue citations or make arrests in reference to the guidelines stipulated in the Stay at Home Order. I will ask that all of our citizens continue to exercise good judgement."
Both Lamb and Schuster advised citizens to continue social distancing, hand-washing, and taking extra precautions with vulnerable populations.
Schuster's decision follows a critical op-ed in the Havasu News on Thursday from business owner Melissa Lucas, who said she shut down her taco shop after a deputy threatened her for having customers eat outside the business. She wrote that when asked what the deputy would do if she refused to comply with social distancing rules, the deputy told her she'd leave in "silver bracelets."
Ducey's office didn't respond directly to the sheriffs' new non-enforcement policies when asked for a comment. Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for the governor, said the office recognizes the sacrifices people have made and while many Arizonans are hurting economically, "we're doing everything we can do alleviate that, while ensuring health and safety."
Ptak pointed to the positive parts of the governor's extension announcement this week, noting the phased-in approach for nonessential retail businesses that begins May 4 and plans that are in the works to safely reopen restaurants.
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"As has been the case, anyone acting in violation of an order to protect public health risks penalties previously outlined," he continued. "To be clear, these instances have been few. We’re communicating with local law enforcement. We’re grateful for the cooperation we’ve seen and expect continued cooperation going forward."
As noted in a New Times article earlier this week, Maricopa County deputies issued a criminal misdemeanor citation to Fountain Hills business owner Merita Kraya, under the state's Military Affairs and Emergencies code. The case is now pending in McDowell Mountain Justice Court.
Enforcement of the order has varied around the Valley, with some agencies writing citations and others not. Phoenix police, for example, reported issuing no citations. Tempe police have issued one citation and written up two other people for city code violations for situations related to the emergency orders.
As of Friday, Arizona has just under 8,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. However, with a continued shortage of tests in the state, the total number of cases in Arizona remains unknown. The state Department of Health Services also reports that 330 people in Arizona have died of the pandemic disease, making for a rate of 4.59 per 100,000. New York City, by comparison, has a COVID-19 death rate of more 138 per 100,000.