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Readers concerned Reno Police not following health guidelines during Covid-19 pandemic


Feature Image: Ty O’Neil

Protesters gathered on Saturday at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno to rally against non-essential business closures and stay at home orders. There was little social distancing and few were wearing masks. 

Reno Police Department (RPD) officers, who were present for the entire protest, weren’t either. 

This Is Reno was contacted by readers who were concerned and dismayed upon seeing photojournalist Ty O’Neil’s photograph in an article on Saturday’s event.

About seven RPD officers followed protestors on bikes while they trekked three miles through downtown Reno. Not one was wearing a mask. 

Police officials said they are severely limited on supplies, but officers should be wearing masks when interacting with the public.

An officer also shook hands with one of the protest’s organizers, Bruce Parks, a member of the American Patriots of Sparks.

After seeing the photo of the handshake, readers had concerns, as physical contact with people outside of one’s household should be avoided to limit the spread of COVID-19. Those with COVID-19 frequently don’t know they have it, since they don’t experience symptoms, but could be spreading it to others.

This Is Reno reached out to RPD for an explanation. 

Here is Travis Warren, the Reno Police Department public information officer’s response, in part:

“We continue to answer calls, help anyone that needs us, and as this photograph depicts: still be out and about, visible in our community,” he said. “Our Officers do their best to stay safe, however, if a citizen approaches and extends a hand to say ‘Thank You,’ it’s not in our nature to turn them away. We are here for the community and we continue to work hard to build those relationships.”

As for masks, Warren said officers are being told to wear masks via supervisors and management. He said he couldn’t answer why they were not on Saturday because he wasn’t there.

“I can’t speak specifically as to why they weren’t, what the circumstances were with them and what they were doing at the time. But obviously it’s a photograph that we’re aware of and you know, that continues the conversation that we have here about keeping not only ourselves safe, but being able to keep the community safe and setting the right example,” Warren said.

When asked if he thought the officers at the protest were setting the right example, Warren said he did not want to answer.

Recommendation for masks is not a requirement

Earlier in April, RPD touted that officers will be wearing masks when interacting with the public. 

“Some of the changes that we’ve made here and Chief Soto implemented is the requirement that we wear face masks when we work with the public,” Warren told KOLO 8 News Now on April 17.

Warren added it’s not always possible.

“There are circumstances where an officer goes to a call and there is an emergency and the officer can’t get the mask on in time,” he explained.

A video on RPD’s Facebook page also said officers will be wearing masks. 

“Let’s all take steps to help one another. Your Reno police officers are wearing masks to help mitigate exposure,” a representative from RPD said in the video.

Reno Police Chief Jason Soto said today that it’s not a requirement, despite what Warren told KOLO.

“There’s a directive … that I put out with our department that it’s a case by case basis. There’s no policy in place saying that they have to wear a mask,” Soto said. “It’s certainly a suggestion and it’s a directive that when possible we’ll wear masks when we take police action. 

“Meaning, if we respond to a call, I don’t know the circumstances of the call that you took a photo at, I know that there’s instances and cases where officers don’t have time to put on a mask. There’s instances and cases where … it really depends on what that social distancing and what that landscape looked like,” Soto added.

The officers were off to the side of the lawn at the rally talking among themselves before people started marching.

Officers only get one mask to last week

According to CDC guidelines, if law enforcement officers wear a mask it has to be a N95 mask. But shortages worldwide and locally have made that requirement challenging to meet.

Soto said RPD received 5,000 masks through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 10 days ago, but that’s only enough to supply officers with one mask per week.

“Ideally that’s what you would want to do in a pandemic type situation: you’d want to have 50,000 masks [and] every single day, a new officer gets a new mask,” Soto told This Is Reno.

“But we don’t have that type of resource at this point. So it’s hard for me to put out a directive when I don’t even have the proper equipment that I need, that I would like to have, that they all should be afforded to have.”

Officers only get one mask. It has to last an entire week.

Washoe County weighs in

The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office’s Public Information Officer Bob Harmon echoed that it’s not always possible to maintain social distancing in law enforcement’s line of work. 

“Our job in law enforcement is a little bit different than others and sometimes you have to move in close. We’ve got protocols for coming into contact with people and just making sure everything is sanitized,” he said. 

Deputies are encouraged to wear masks as circumstances allow. 

“In accordance with CDC guidelines…as long as you’re practicing social distancing, you don’t need to be wearing a mask all the time, which is proper because we don’t have the equipment supply to be wearing them 24 hours a day. So we use them as circumstances require,” Harmon said.

He said sheriff deputies keep gloves and masks in their cars. This Is Reno asked if law enforcement might shy away from masks because it hides part of their identity.

“I don’t think that’s a problem. I mean, they’re in full uniform with badges and all that. I don’t think, necessarily, a mask is a hindrance,” Harmon said.

A slide from a press conference hosted by Governor Sisolak’s office highlighting the effects of social distancing.

The Washoe County Health District’s Epidemiology Program Manager Heather Kerwin said today the CDC outlines different steps law enforcement can take to keep themselves and others safe.

“All essential employees are recommended to be wearing masks when they’re interacting with public, or with people in their own office setting, where they’re going to be interacting for 10 minutes or more, of course within that six feet,” she said. “It would be best practice that all essential employees put on masks [and] practice good hand hygiene.”

Health experts said the best action individuals can take is maintaining six feet apart, wear masks when in public and avoid large gatherings. 

The Washoe County Health Department reported that they saw a spike in positive COVID-19 cases after groups gathered to celebrate Easter and are concerned that reopen protests could contribute to COVID-19’s spread, especially if individuals don’t stand six feet apart or wear face coverings.

Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.