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Sheriff declines to change mask policy after seeking COVID-19 funds for PTO in department
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Sheriff declines to change mask policy after seeking COVID-19 funds for PTO in department

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The Pennington County Sheriff's Office will not begin requiring masks after more than 60 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Sheriff Kevin Thom asked county commissioners Tuesday to approve spending federal CARES Act money on employee PTO for those who have COVID-19, who are quarantining after exposure or are awaiting COVID-19 test results.

The commissioners unanimously approved the request after Thom said that on Tuesday morning alone, he learned of 13 more cases among sheriff's office employees.

Spokesperson Helene Duhamel hasn't responded to a question from the Journal about how much this could cost the county, which has received $7.5 million in CARES Act relief that is required to be spent by Dec. 30.

More than 420 employees work at the sheriff's office, Duhamel said, and there will be no change to the mask policy despite the surge in cases.

Duhamel said the policy has always been that employees are "welcome to wear a mask at work if they choose," which includes the deputy seated near the entrance to the county administration building.

The surge in cases among the staff correlates with a COVID-19 spike at correctional facilities, Thom said Tuesday, noting 35 to 40 inmates have COVID-19 in the jail. Duhamel said 54 inmates, one Juvenile Services Center detainee, and two care campus clients have tested positive from March to Oct. 21.

Duhamel would not say how many inmates, clients, detainees, deputies or other employees have had an active case of COVID-19. She said protocols are in place to quarantine and separate those who are positive for COVID-19.

Masks are only required for sheriff's deputies in the following instances, Duhamel said in an email:

  • When interacting with other departments that require their use;

  • When entering the County Administration Building;

  • When working on or entering the secure side of the Pennington County Jail or Juvenile Services Center;

  • When working in or entering the housing areas of the Care Campus where they can’t social distance, or when interacting with clients;

  • If they are exposed to COVID-19 as defined by the South Dakota Department of Health and are unable to social distance;

  • Masks were required in the courthouse effective Monday, Oct. 19, Duhamel said.

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Employees, while performing official duties such as entering a business that requires a mask, should be “cognizant of being a positive representative of our office,” Duhamel said.

“Deputies while on duty will need to exercise good discretion when interacting with the public,” she said. “If they are more comfortable based on their exposure or inability to distance, masks may be worn by both parties.”

Rapid City Police Department and South Dakota Highway Patrol officers also aren't required to wear masks when working with the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the RCPD, masks have been “encouraged” for months “when appropriate,” spokesman Brendyn Medina said, “especially when they are in a confined space and/or unable to social distance, or when dealing with someone that is sick.”

Officers can use their discretion to wear a mask or forgo one when safety is a priority or “if the need to clearly communicate exists,” Medina said.

Masks aren’t required when working with the public because officers need to maintain room for discretion, Medina said, providing an example that if an officer is dispatched to a situation with someone going through a mental health crisis, they need to be able to communicate with a “tone of sympathy and understanding.”

“While they may be socially distanced enough to maintain safe conversation, a mask would hinder their ability to de-escalate this situation and bring it to a resolution in the most effective manner,” Medina said.

Highway Patrol officers, troopers and motor carrier inspectors “may” wear a mask while on duty “if they elect to do so,” according to policy. Officers are “encouraged” to wear latex gloves, either an N-95 or cloth face mask and eye protection if they are conducting a search of a vehicle or other close contact.

Officers are also encouraged to wear that PPE during an arrest, which would be “situations beyond a normal verbal exchange or issuing of a citation, warning or commercial vehicle inspection,” spokesman Tony Mangan said.

Brittany Neiles of Rapid City was stopped for speeding west of exit 63 on Interstate 90 on Oct. 2. When Neiles was pulled over, a Highway Patrol officer who was not wearing a mask gave her a warning and asked her to sit in his vehicle while he filled out the paperwork.

"In the circumstances of a pandemic, it seemed a little strange" for the officer to ask Neiles to sit in his car. "I wasn't even in the mindset of wearing a mask" when pulled over, Neiles said.

"Had he worn a mask, I would have thought to put my mask on," Neiles said, noting she often won't go places without one. "I was upset that he hadn't worn one either."

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