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One Northeast Alabama sheriff is "strongly encouraging" people to use face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic per Gov. Kay Ivey's statewide order but says deputies won't be issuing citations for violations, while a neighboring sheriff isn't weighing in on the matter yet.

Ivey issued the order Wednesday after the state reported a pandemic high of 40 deaths in a single day. The order went into effect Thursday afternoon for anyone older than 6 who is in public and within 6 feet of someone who's not a relative, according to Associated Press reports.

In Jackson County, deputies will not answer complaint calls for people who aren't wearing a mask, but if the mask issue leads across any other criminal lines an arrest could be possible on those charges, according to officials there. DeKalb County authorities declined to say anything about enforcement.

"Obviously, we don't want to go against the governor's order, but we just don't have the manpower for answering calls on masks," Jackson County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen said Friday.

As far as the ability of law enforcement to prosecute mask violations, Harnen said the department's research shows the governor's order is on the books and violation of it is a misdemeanor and could be prosecuted in court.

Sheriff Chuck Phillips will enforce the rule by "strongly encouraging" mask use but won't dedicate the county's limited resources to enforcement, arrests or issuing citations related to it, Harnen said.

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Staff file photo by Ben Benton / Jackson County (Ala.) Sheriff Chuck Phillips.

Businesses can seek law enforcement help in certain masking situations, he said.

"Businesses can say you can't come in and if they call us and say these people refuse to leave and won't put on a mask, then we will come and ask them to leave. And if they refuse, they're subject to arrest for trespass," Harnen said. If disputes over masks escalate into any form of violence, then criminal charges such as assault might be pursued, he said.

In neighboring DeKalb County, Alabama, which this week along with Whitfield County, Georgia, outpaced Hamilton County's rate of new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people, Sheriff Nick Welden had no comment on enforcement of Ivey's order, sheriff's office spokesman Tyler Pruett said. Pruett did note, however, that the county jail remains free of any confirmed cases of coronavirus so far.

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Photo contributed by DeKalb County (Ala.) Sheriff's Office / DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden

A tri-state region tally late this week showed Jackson County's average new cases per 10,000 people, at 4.61, was next behind DeKalb, which averaged 7.12, and Whitfield, which reported 6.3 cases per 10,000 people, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health, Georgia Department of Public Health, Alabama Department of Public Health and Johns Hopkins University. Hamilton County averaged 2.8 new cases per 10,000 people during the period.

(READ MORE: Track down the latest on COVID-19 cases here)

Southeast Tennessee's rural county leaders haven't issued mandates for wearing masks in public but urged their use, while Hamilton County made masks a requirement for its citizens.

Mayor Jim Coppinger issued a mask mandate on July 6 for Hamilton County, and city officials said the municipality will help county health officials enforce the county mayor's order that makes a violation a class C misdemeanor punishable with up to a $50 fine and 30 days in jail. Outlying counties in Southeast Tennessee, however, haven't mandated masks after Gov. Bill Lee signed an order giving 89 Tennessee county mayors the power to issue orders. Some Tennessee district attorneys have said such mandates are unconstitutional and can't be prosecuted.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp's opposition to municipal mask mandates led this week to a lawsuit filed against Atlanta's mayor and city council seeking to block enforcement of the city's mandate for wearing masks in public, according to the AP. Kemp's order was opposed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and some other Georgia mayors, who said they'd continue enforcing the local orders.

(READ MORE: How to wear a mask to prevent spread of COVID-19: Chattanooga officials, CDC provide tips)

Harnen said deputies answering calls will wear masks only when they have to be within 6 feet of members of the public, but if they must enter a home they will wear a mask. Also, a mask won't be required when a deputy's in an arrest situation where a mask could represent a risk, he said. Meanwhile, no Jackson County Jail inmates so far have tested positive for coronavirus, Harnen noted.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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