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Sheriff Ronnie Fields speaks during an employee recognition ceremony on Feb. 6, 2019. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Update (6/27/2020): A clarification from Sheriff Fields can be read in its entirety at the end of this article. 


Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields on Friday joined a growing chorus of law enforcement leaders in announcing he will not enforce Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide order requiring face coverings in public places.

“To be direct and clear, neither I nor the members of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will be enforcing this mandate from the governor,” Fields wrote in a statement shared through the community notification platform Nixle. “The reasons, you may ask? There are two of them. No. 1, because the order is unconstitutional. And secondly, because the order itself is unenforceable.”

Similarly worded statements were issued by multiple sheriffs and police chiefs across the state before Cooper’s order took effect at 5 p.m. on Friday. The mandate warns that non-complying businesses could be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor.

In a phone interview, Fields said his determination on the order’s constitutionality, or lack thereof, was based on guidance from the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association.

“That’s what I based my information on,” Fields said. “My phone kept blowing up (with calls about the order), and I said we can put out something short and simple saying this is how it’s going to be.”

A memo emailed Friday to members of the Sheriffs’ Association does not say the executive order violates the U.S. or state constitutions.

“We are not aware of and have not found any legal authority for the Governor to direct any law enforcement officer to not enforce G.S. 14-288.20A or any other criminal law violation,” the association wrote, referring to the general statute that makes it a misdemeanor to violate any restriction established in an executive order. “No such authority is contained in our criminal law and no such authority can be found in the General Statutes that authorize issuance of the Governor’s Executive Orders. Under current law, whether or not to charge a person with a criminal law violation of the Governor’s Order requiring the wearing of a face covering is within the discretion of law enforcement.”

In an online FAQ, the state advises residents to report violations of the order by calling “local law enforcement’s non-emergency line.” Fields offered different advice.

“Here’s my recommendation: they need to call up there to Raleigh,” he said. “If people don’t want to wear a mask, that should be on them.”

The executive order states that authorities are “not authorized to criminally enforce the face covering requirements (…) against individual workers, customers, or patrons.” It includes exemptions for people with medical or behavioral disabilities that make it difficult for them to wear masks, though individuals are expected to use the “honor system to identify if they are within one of the exceptions.”

The order allows police to file trespassing charges against any employee or customer who does not wear a face covering inside a business and refuses to leave when asked by the establishment's management. But Fields said law enforcers would normally treat any individual who ignores a request to leave private property as a trespasser, face covering or not.

“Now if a business calls up here and says ‘look, I’ve got somebody in here that doesn't want to wear a mask and I don’t want them in my store,’ we’ll respond,” he said. “And if they don’t want you in the store, you’ve got to leave.”

Fields isn’t the only local law enforcement official who won’t be cracking down on residents for not wearing masks. Chief Carl Colasacco of the Aberdeen Police Department said he instructed his officers on Thursday not to enforce the mandate.

“If a business calls and they want a person removed because they are not wearing a mask, we will respond,” Colasacco said. “If the person refuses to leave the business, they will be charged with trespassing. The business has the right to make that decision.”

Chief Earl Phipps of the Pinehurst Police Department noted that the language of the order, particularly the section prohibiting criminal enforcement against individual patrons in public places, gives law officers little latitude to actually carry out the mandate.

“We’re hoping everyone will voluntarily comply, but it says clearly in the order that it’s unenforceable,” Phipps said. “We’re hoping that our citizens will do the right thing, use all the precautions and hopefully we’ll get through this thing together as a team.”

Chief Bob Temme of the Southern Pines Police Department was out of the office until July 6 and did not respond to an email from The Pilot seeking comment.

On Saturday afternoon, Sheriff Fields released the following clarification to his earlier statement.

Apparently there has been some confusion and misinterpretion from my statement that I made yesterday. While my stance has not changed, I would like to clarify further. I have attached the enforcement portion of Executive Order 147 below. You will see that law enforcement can not charge individuals for failing to wear a mask. You will also see that it is the responsibility of the business owners to enforce employees and patrons to wear masks, and I support them and will assist them if a patron fails to wear a mask and they refuse them service. That assistance will be in the form of us enforcing trespassing laws. Store owners always have the right to refuse service, and I feel confident they will do their best to keep their patrons safe. I encourage people to read the enforcement portion of the Executive Order in it’s entirety.

F. Enforcement of Face Covering Requirements.

1. Citations under this Section shall be written only to businesses or organizations that fail to enforce the requirement to wear Face Coverings. Operators of businesses and organizations are entitled to rely on their customers or patrons' statements about whether or not they are excepted from the Face Covering requirements, and businesses and organizations do not violate this Executive Order if they rely on such statements.

2. Law enforcement personnel are not authorized to criminally enforce the Face Covering requirements of this Executive Order against individual workers, customers, or patrons.

3. However, if a business or organization does not allow entry to a worker, customer, or patron because that person refuses to wear a Face Covering, and if that worker, customer, or patron enters the premises or refuses to leave the premises, law enforcement personnel may enforce the trespassing laws and any other laws (other than N.C. Gen. Stat.§ 14-288.20A) that the worker, customer, or patron may violate.

Click the image below to read the full text of the executive order.


Staff writer Laura Douglass contributed to this report. 

(32) comments

Kent Misegades

This thread is already shaping, but a good contribution comes from Dr. Simone Gold, ER doctor from NYC. Her edited Op-Ed appeared in USA Today but can be found online on the Tennessee Star. She compares most masks to a chain link fence trying to stop a mosquito. “Dr. Simone Gold Commentary: We Do Not Consent“. I agree 100% with her opinion: “Th The mask has become the most visible symbol of #socialconditioning to Americans determined to preserve individual freedom. The mask has become the most visible symbol of social conditioning to Americans determined to preserve individual freedom.“

Karen Sorvari

The sheriff (and others) should read the exec. order all the way to the sentence that encourages law enforcement to educate and encourage voluntary compliance.

Mark Hayes

Seems that defiance is behind the reasoning for not wearing a mask, a Republican as one can be, but Cooper should not have had to make the decision. Any self thinking person should recognize the importance of the restriction measures, no matter the inconveniences that wearing a mask seems to conflict on their interpretation of the Constitution. When those that refuse to wear a mask show up at the hospital, they won't be greeted by supporters of not wearing a mask, they will be given care by those in healthcare who will be wearing a mask. With no Constitutional rights to refuse those who are not wearing a mask, healthcare workers are obligated to care for the masked victims and those without, with several in the healthcare profession, I'm personally appalled by the acts of those defiant individuals who are acting out over politics, not the welfare of those around them.

Kent Misegades

So much emotion over a non-issue really. There is no blanket mandate to wear masks providing social distancing is possible. Businesses should have the right to have the last say on masks. Those I visit tell me they will not require masks as they can easily handle social distancing. Cooper is on thin ice now anyway with a lawsuit from Dan Forest over his heavy-handed rulings. It’s OK for Governor Shutdown to walk without a mask arm-in-arm with protesters but he wants the rest of us to wear them always? I think this is what is called a hypocrite.

Christopher Parillo

I cannot believe an elected official believes he/she is an expert on constitutional law. IF the NC legislature, at some point in the point in the future, says driving while talking on the phone in your hand is illegal, will Barney from Moore County again say it is unconstitutional or impossible to enforce. Can the County Commissioners become involved in this perilous stance by their Sheriff?

Jim Davis

Mr. Parillo...the NC legislature did not have input to this executive order

Brenda Burt

I understand that the law might be difficult to enforce, so many people refuse to wear a mask. But instead of making a public statement that he will not enforce this mandate, he should encourage folks to wear a mask. So it’s left up to the business owners to refuse service to non mask patrons. I was at Dollar General yesterday afternoon and the cashier was not wearing a mask, nor were most of the customers.....many of them coughing and hacking not covering their mouths. For the folks that take this virus seriously, wearing masks, social distancing, trying to keep our at risk children and elderly safe, the statement Sheriff Fields made about not enforcing the mandate is a direct slap in our face. There are many at risk folks in Moore County that only leave their home to go the store for necessities, and then have unmasked cashiers coughing and checkIng them out. It’s going to be interesting to see how many folks flocking to the beach for July 4th will come back and infect everyone in the county.

Jim Davis

"the law might be difficult to enforce"...an Executive Order is not the same as a Law. Governors have limited authority under the states constitution, which this governor clearly has and only the legislature can make laws.

Rebecca Stephens

So heartened to read that so many thinking Moore County residents are appalled by the lack of Sheriff Wilkins interest and leadership in fighting Covid 19 among our people. Right now face coverings in public is one of the few ways we have to fight the virus.

Bruce Macbeth

Looks like the sheriff is using his constitutional law degree from the Barney Fife law school. And his medical degree from the bankrupt Trump University. Do your job!

Comment deleted.
Kathy Wright

You are a supposed Christian? Kent, you do not even know what the word means.

ron smith

I am wearing a mask simply because Moore County is pushing tourism and people are coming here in droves from other states to golf. Resort at 100% occupancy; rentals full. Golfing per se, not the issue; not shuttering our county is. All about $$$. Better mask up if you want to be safe.

Brenda Burt

Yeah, just wait until the USA Kids Golf group comes the end of July, you will see some problems then, the retired folks that normally volunteer said count me out! So volunteers will be difficult to find plus a lot of folks will be infected.

Jim Davis

Based on the comments, I suggest people look up the difference between a law and executive order....the Governor does not make laws and based on the State of NC Constitution he has exceeded his authority....

Karen Sorvari

A court has recently ruled that another executive order (closing bars) had a clear public purpose to to contain the impact of covid -19, sustaining that order. I expect the same ruling on the face mask order.

Deanna Drummond

Is the law requiring you to wear a seatbelt unconstitutional and unenforceable? That too is for the protection and wellbeing of citizens. Also, since when has it been within the power of a county sheriff to determine the constitutionality of a mandate directed by a duly elected governor of a state? Courts have been established for that task. Mr. Fields is just pain wrong.

Sally Larson

Deanna, you have a good point. These people who don't want to wear a mask think this is some political statement, who knows where they got that idea. It's not like the COVID-19 knows the difference. it's irresponsible, self-centered, entitled, and just plain stupid and I'm very disappointed our Sherrif can't put the health of our county, state, and country ahead of any political interest. The sooner everyone complies, the sooner this virus will be under control and then we can open up the country. But these people are preventing us from getting there by being entitled spoiled children.

Brenda Burt

Sally Larson, I agree with you.

greg regan

Sally, wearing a mask is not a political statement it's an IQ test.

Patricia Bryan

I think you have to rely on common sense (fat chance) just as the last church/state thing was settled by the courts and most churches did not open up, but this isn't a matter of that as addressed in the constitution. It's really left up to the individual businesses to enforce, which I doubt they will do other than at least two that have enforced it before the governor's executive order. You put employees in danger of a nasty demanding customer who wants to come in regardless of the order that may be posted on the door, and if every law enforcement officer in the county had to respond to every establishment to keep the unmasked person out, there just aren't enough of them to otherwise keep the peace. It's really too bad that some people can't put up with a little discomfort for a short time that would benefit their fellow citizens. Maybe some who have discovered that they aren't invincible after all will think about it, including the ones who have survived one bout with the virus and think they can't get it again. There have been several reports of re-infection. I do find it interesting that all discussions have avoided asking if the massive protests might have contributed to the uptick. Moore County did theirs the right way with the corona virus and safety in mind and for that I salute them! They didn't make the news other than The Pilot.

Karen Sorvari

Search "have protests raised civic cases." Several studies have determined BLM protests did not appreciably change covid cases. No info on local protests such as OpenNC.

Karen Sorvari

Autocorrect error. In first sentence change civic to covid.

greg regan

I wonder if there was an order to evacuate because of fire, hurricane, or a gas leak would Sheriff Feilds have the same response that the order was not constitutional or unenforceable thereby ignoring the order?

Deanna Drummond

Excellent point

Susan Thomas

Exactly. Stop making a health crisis Into a political issue.

Karen Sorvari

The constitutionality of the order is for a court to decide, not for a sheriff or association to decide. If the sheriff is unwilling to enforce a law, perhaps he should step down. His current stance undermines efforts to stop the spread of covid-19.

Deanna Drummond

I agree wholeheartedly

Sally Larson

It's very concerning to think our police aren't willing to protect our citizens.

Matthew Gritzmacher

I agree with the sheriff that the order is practically unenforceable, but that can be said for so many other laws on the books.

Given how clear the effects of masks are on limiting the spread of the virus, I am disappointed to see someone in a position of leadership in our community not do everything within his power advocate for the public health, even if it's impossible to rigidly enforce. I won't pretend to be an expert on the order's constitutionality, but I'm confident that matter is not for the state Sheriff's Association to decide, either.

Karen Bevan

Well stated. Thank you.

Tommy McDonell

I don’t know whether it is constitutional or not. But I do know that it will Not Hurt anyone to wear a mask. On the other hand, not wearing masks could kill people. I support the Governor not the President. I’m disappointed in this sheriff and in others. NC has more cases. What does this sheriff have to lose by following the governor. Try it for a month and see.

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