LA GRANDE — Educating the public has been the primary focus of the Union County Sheriff’s Office as it continues to assess how to approach the coronavirus pandemic and the office’s role in enforcement. It’s the same stance the La Grande Police Department and Oregon State Police have taken, according to Union County Sheriff’s Lt. Ken Woodward.
He said educating includes informing those in situations the sheriff’s office may come upon — that, as Woodward put it, could “contribute to an environment that could assist the virus” — of the now well-known recommendations about social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and staying home if sick.
The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City is the source of Union County’s recent coronavirus outbreak. The church for weeks reportedly ignored Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home executive order of March 14 that limited faith-based gatherings to 25 people. But as to whether the sheriff’s office can do anything to further enforce stipulations within the governor’s executive orders — breaking up gatherings if they are too big, for example — remains an unknown.
“As far as ability (to enforce), I don’t have enough information on what we can do legally, constitutionally,” Woodward said. “Is it constitutional for us to go out and cite someone based on an executive order violation? I don’t know.”
The right to peaceably assemble is among the five rights the First Amendment of the Constitution provides, and Woodward said he is “personally not inclined to violate someone’s civil rights.”
He added it’s a unique situation, and one law enforcement is learning to navigate.
“We’re in continual conversation with our partnering agencies (including) the other law enforcement agencies (and) the DA’s office regarding these issues,” he said.
Union County commissioners say they are in a similar boat. Commissioner Matt Scarfo said the county is looking into what the commissioners can and can’t do, but it is unlikely there will be any enforcement without the approval of the public.
La Grande Police Chief Gary Bell also echoed these ideas. At a recent county commissioner board meeting, Bell said enforcement of the regulations would be difficult because “these are good people.”
Bell clarified that statement Wednesday.
“When I made the comment about ‘good people’ I was referring to all people in our community,” he said. “It was later brought to my attention that the way I made that statement made it sound as if I was referring to a select group of people, which was not my intent.”
Bell also addressed rumors that he or his family have a connection to the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.
“My family and I are not affiliated with the Lighthouse Church in any way,” Bell said. “My wife’s parents had attended this church prior to their deaths. My wife and I have never attended this church.”
Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen has not returned multiple calls seeking comment about UCSO’s response to enforcing public health recommendations.
But sheriff’s deputy Cody Bowen, who is running against Rasmussen for county sheriff, indicated there isn’t any difference in the approach the sheriff’s office would take under his leadership.
His message: “Play by the rules. Keep everyone as safe as possible until we get through it.”
Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel said her office would enter into the fray of prosecuting individuals only if a case were brought to them.
“The DA’s office is not an investigative agency. Some have in-house investigators but Union County does not,” she said. “At this point we have not been referred any investigations.”
The governor’s 16-page executive order provides for enforcing its multiple requirements, citing Oregon Revised Statute ORS 431A.010. That law grants the Oregon Health Authority the power to investigate possible violations of public health laws, issues subpoenas for testimony or other evidence, issue enforcement orders and fines for violations up to $500 per day.
In addition, the executive order specifies that “any person, business, or entity found to be in violation” of the order itself is subject to ORS 401.990, which states: “Any person knowingly violating any provision of this chapter, or any of the rules, regulations or orders adopted and promulgated under this chapter, shall, upon conviction thereof, be guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.”
The city of Island City said in a statement to The Observer it has been “working with all cities within Union County, as well as county officials, to share information and learn more about the outbreak.”
The city was in contact with Lighthouse staff prior to the outbreak “about the gatherings that were taking place, as well as the noise of their outdoor services.”
The release added several calls from residents were made to the sheriff’s office, and there has been a complaint filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.