Hamilton Sign Supporters

Sheriff Rob Snaza shakes hands with Hamilton sign supporters in the parking lot of Bethel Church last June in Napavine. 

OLYMPIA — Consider the humble facial covering in the coronavirus era: It's been a public health aid, a gesture of respect toward others, a fashion statement and even a partisan signifier.

Now, one Washington County sheriff has suggested Gov. Jay Inslee's new statewide mandate requiring people to wear the coverings amid the pandemic could be showcasing something else: their conformity.

Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza warned a group of residents against being "sheep" in light of the new mask order, according to the Centralia Chronicle.

A group of residents, most without face coverings, had gathered at the well-known billboard facing Interstate 5 in Chehalis, known for its conservative political messages.

"In case you guys didn't hear, Gov. Inslee, in his infinite wisdom, has decided after over 100-some-odd days, that we should all wear face masks, inside and out," Snaza said through a bullhorn.

"Here's what I say, don't be a sheep," Snaza advised the cheering throng, before handing the bullhorn to a man whose face was covered.

The sheriff didn't return calls or emails Wednesday seeking comment about his remarks. (See Snaza's interview with KIRO 7 here: https://bit.ly/3dzS02H)

Washington's mask requirement comes as confirmed coronavirus cases have spiked around the nation, including across the South and West.

Cases are climbing in Washington, too, propelled in part by an outbreak in Yakima County. The Department of Health Wednesday afternoon reported 483 new confirmed cases of the virus across the state.

In a news conference Wednesday about requirements for higher education institutions to reopen amid the virus, Inslee said he was disappointed in Snaza's remarks.

"I think people who are law abiding, those who are wearing their seat belts because it's law and it's safe, those who are wearing face masks because it is both the law and is safe -- I just don't agree with calling those folks somehow barnyard animals," Inslee said.

"They're protecting other people," added the governor.

Many conservatives have chafed at Inslee's emergency orders, which, like those in other states, are intended to stem the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Critics have questioned whether such orders are constitutional and suggested the governor is overstepping his powers.

While violating the facial-covering requirement is a misdemeanor, Inslee has said he hopes not to enforce it.

Throughout the pandemic, Washington's law enforcement agencies have generally not enforced emergency restrictions, choosing instead to education residents.

The statewide mandate -- which takes effect Friday -- requires people over the age of 5 to generally wear face coverings while they are in public spaces.

Masks won't be required outdoors where people can stay more than 6 feet apart, while at home with others, or when alone in a vehicle.

The order also recognize times where people can remove coverings in public, such as when eating at a restaurant, or engaging in a recreational activity alone or with other people from their household.