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Sheriff's enforcement move unfortunate

Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler may have good reasons for declaring that his department will not enforce Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders declaring a state of emergency from the coronavirus pandemic, but the sheriff’s announcement was not well handled, and may make a precarious public health situation worse.

Sickler’s statement, posted on the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page Friday, said the office “has not and will not dedicate any of our limited resources to enforcing this order.” The statement further advised the public to “not use the Sheriff’s Office resources by reporting businesses open or groups gathering to my office, as we have much more significant issues to deal with on a daily basis.”

No one is asking the sheriff to waste public resources chasing down complaints of illegal gatherings or businesses that are operating in violation of the governor’s orders when there is more important public safety work to be done. It’s legitimate to prioritize calls based on the potential threat, and certainly a burglary in progress, an assault or an injury motor vehicle collision is a higher priority than a gathering of more people than allowed during the coronavirus lockdown.

We think it’s appropriate for Sickler to use a light touch in enforcing public health restrictions, and we applaud his statement that “We ... understand the difficulties our current status is causing for our valley and many people have been put in very difficult situations. My office will not make those situations worse.”

But to flatly announce that there will be no enforcement, period, and tell the public not even to bother calling is essentially an open invitation to those in the community who don’t think the restrictions are necessary to simply ignore them. And that’s dangerous, because those who do so are not just endangering themselves.

If only those who chose to ignore the restrictions contracted the virus, that would be one thing. But if the virus spreads at a large gathering, those who leave and walk into their local supermarket are potentially exposing everyone they encounter.

Sickler is a competent sheriff, but public relations is not his strong suit. If he were more skilled in framing his policies and proposals for public consumption, the campaign for a new jail might have gone more smoothly.

Public comments on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page are spreading misinformation about the governor’s orders, claiming they are not “laws” because the Legislature did not enact them, and violating them is therefore not a crime. Those commenters might want to read Oregon Revised Statute 401.192 — that’s a law — which says, “All rules and orders issued under authority conferred by ORS 401.165 (Declaration of state of emergency) ... shall have the full force and effect of law both during and after the declaration of a state of emergency.”

The governor issued the orders for a legitimate public health purpose: To slow the spread of a potentially deadly virus so hospitals would not be overwhelmed and more deaths would not result.

Those strict measures appear to have worked. Jackson County is awaiting state approval to begin reopening some businesses starting as early as Friday. But that means it is even more important to continue observing the ban on large gatherings, the prohibition against some businesses reopening and the social distancing practices that have kept the virus at bay so far.

The risk is that people will move too quickly to resume gathering in large groups and stop observing social distancing and the number of cases of COVID-19 will soar as a result.