LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Lang Holland, the chief of police in tiny Marshall, Arkansas, said he thinks the threat of the coronavirus has been overstated and only wears a face mask if he's inside a business that requires them. He doesn't make his officers wear them either.
So the day after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an order requiring masks to be worn in public throughout Arkansas, Holland made it clear his department wasn't going to enforce the mandate in the Ozarks town of about 1,300, calling it an unconstitutional overreach.
“All I'm saying is if you want to wear a mask, you have the freedom to choose that," said Holland, who said he supports President Donald Trump. “It should not be dictated by the nanny state."
Holland is among a number of police chiefs and sheriffs in Arkansas and elsewhere who say they won't enforce statewide mask requirements, even within their departments. Some say they don't have the manpower to respond to every mask complaint, treating violations of the requirement as they would oft-ignored minor offenses such as jaywalking. Others, including Holland, reject the legal validity of mask requirements.
The pushback is concerning to health officials, who say a lack of enforcement could undermine what they say is a much-needed and simple step that can be taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“If people undermine that mandate, they undermine the public health benefits of masking in the setting of this pandemic, and that just doesn’t make any sense to me," said Dr. Cam Patterson, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who had called for a statewide requirement.
More than half the states have issued orders to wear masks in most public settings, with virus cases and hospitalizations on the rise. Polling shows overwhelming public support for such requirements, and even Trump, who had long been dismissive of wearing masks, last week said it was patriotic to wear one.
The most vocal police pushback to mask requirements is coming from Republican-led states that aggressively reopened businesses or previously opposed stricter measures such as mask requirements. Hutchinson, who was among a handful of governors who didn't issue a stay-at-home order, long resisted issuing a mask mandate in Arkansas, but he relented in the face of the state's worsening numbers.
Arkansas' active virus cases, meaning those excluding people who have died or recovered from COVID-19, have nearly quadrupled since Memorial Day. The number of people hospitalized with the disease in the state is almost five times higher than it was that day.
“This is a way to enlist the support of everyone in this fight," Hutchinson said before signing the order, which took effect Monday.
Several police chiefs and sheriffs immediately said they wouldn't enforce Hutchinson's order, which prohibits people from being jailed for violations and only imposes fines for repeat offenders. The Texarkana Police Department said it wouldn't enforce the order, saying its primary responsibility was “fighting crime and providing police services."
John Staley, the sheriff of Lonoke County in central Arkansas, said he agrees with the need for masks and his deputies wear them when in contact with the public. But he said his department doesn't have the manpower to respond to complaints about them.
“I support the governor's position and his decision, but we’re not going to be out writing tickets for masks," Staley said.
None of the resistant law enforcement agencies are refusing to respond to disturbances related to masks, which have turned violent or deadly in some incidents. Staley and officials from several other law enforcement agencies have said they would respond if businesses complain about people refusing to wear masks or to leave the premises.
Several sheriffs in neighboring Texas have also said they wouldn't enforce a mask requirement issued by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. And a group of 38 sheriffs in Montana signed an op-ed this months saying they believe that the mask requirement issued by the state's Democratic governor this month “is not a mandate for law enforcement to issue citations and arrest violators.“
Enforcement of Alabama's mask rule, which took effect this month, has also varied. Some police said they would provide masks to those not wearing them in public, and others said they didn't plan to ticket people for violations.
“We as law enforcement are NOT the social distancing police OR the face mask police. Just be responsible, that’s all, and be safe,” the Bay Minette Police Department announced in a Facebook post.
In New York City, which was at the heart of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak early on in the pandemic, the nation's largest police department has struggled with how to enforce mask mandates. Police initially assigned 1,000 officers this spring to enforce mask wearing and social distancing rules, but they backed off after some violent arrests were caught on video.
Now, the city relies chiefly on civilian workers and community group members to hand out masks and encourage people to wear them.
Hutchinson said he would defer to local police and sheriffs on how to enforce his order, saying it was their prerogative on how to prioritize offenses. But he also said police “don't pick and choose" which laws they enforce. The difficulty of enforcing a mandate in a rural state like Arkansas was one of the reasons Hutchinson gave for resisting the requirement until recently.
Not all police departments are resistant to enforcing mask mandates, though they're hoping to avoid the need to write anyone up for not complying.
“I am confident that the overwhelming majority of Fort Smith residents and visitors care about each other and will choose to help us through personal accountability, making the need for enforcement action non-existent," Danny Baker, the chief of police in Fort Smith, an Arkansas city along the Oklahoma border, said in a statement.
Supporters of mask mandates say penalties were never their goal and that they never envisioned police having to respond to every complaint about someone not wearing one.
“Nobody's asking for a masking gestapo," Patterson said. “We're just asking for good behavior and support from our local communities."
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.