Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods has made one thing perfectly clear – the majority of his deputies, employees and those visiting the sheriff’s office are forbidden from wearing face coverings amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Woods announced the policy during an email sent out Tuesday stating “when you are on-duty/working as my employee and representing my Office – masks will not be worn.” He added that “my orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.”
Woods’ email said there are several exceptions and guidelines to be followed. He said in those exceptions detailed blow, only pre-approved masks will be worn:
- When you are instructed to wear a mask by human resources when they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for essential workers, “which is every one of you.”
- At the Courthouse, which is in compliance to the Fifth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge’s order and is to be followed only as outlined.
- At the Jail, where guidelines are in place due to it being a confined environment and distancing isn’t an option.
- At public or private schools that have it as a mandate for their students.
- At all hospitals because of positive cases within the facilities and the extremely high-risk people who will be present.
Deputies on patrol were told to keep their masks in their pockets for certain calls that include:
- When responding to a nursing home or assisted living facility.
- When responding to a known COVID-19 address alert from dispatch.
- When on a call that involves a high-risk elderly person.
Woods wrote that for all of those exceptions, the moment that enforcement action is to be taken and it requires deputies to give someone an order or command to comply, masks must be removed immediately.
Woods also said that those working special details or special events – paid or not – won’t be allowed to wear masks. He said anyone who hires deputies for those special occasions will be informed that they won’t be wearing masks and instructed deputies to tell their contact person the same thing.
“If at any time you are confronted by any individual complaining, berating you or just being a difficult individual, you will politely and professionally tell them, ‘I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff,’ and then walk away from them,” Woods wrote. “From that point on it will be my burden and responsibility to take care of the person and answer their problem, complaint or their question.”
The mandate against masks also includes anyone visiting the lobbies of any sheriff’s offices located throughout the county.
“In light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby,” he said. “All of our lobbies have glass barriers between you and them that the virus cannot magically go thru.”
Woods said anyone who enters those lobbies wearing a mask will be asked to remove it and if they refuse, they will be asked to leave.
“If the individual is not comfortable with standing and waiting in the lobby with other individuals, politely ask for their cell number and advise them to stand outside or sit in their vehicle and you will text or call them with their completed transaction,” Woods instructed his staff.
Woods also pointed out in his email that he didn’t make the decision against face coverings lightly and weighed it out for the past two weeks.
“We can debate and argue all day of why and why not,” he said. “The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.”
Woods said since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the procedures in place at his office haven’t changed and no wearing of masks has been put in place.
“With just at 900 employees, our number of cases so far has proven that the current way we are approaching the issue is working,” he said. “This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion.”
The sheriff’s office reported on July 23 that 209 inmates had been identified with COVID-19 at the county jail. Another 274 tested negative and eight refused to be checked. Twelve tests were pending and 44 were being retested, bringing the total number checked to 503 of the 1,458 inmates housed at the facility.
Five days later, the number of inmates suffering from the virus had dropped significantly to between 30 and 40. Those inmates were isolated in one pod, with those showing symptoms and awaiting tests results being kept in a separate pod at the jail.