JOSEPH — Signs in Joseph were vandalized recently to convey anti-tourist messages and heighten fear that tourists are bringing COVID-19 to the area, according to Joseph City Administrator Larry Braden.

Braden reported the vandalism to the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office the afternoon of Thursday, June 25. He said he had discussed the matter with Mayor Teresa Sajonia and they agreed he should call the sheriff’s office in Enterprise.

Braden said June 26 that a deputy came to Joseph, took some photographs of the vandalized signs and opened an investigation.

Possibly the worst damage was whiting out the words “forget to” in the sign reading “Don’t forget to come back” at the north end of town, leaving it to read, “Don’t come back.” Other signs read, “Tourists, the fact that you are here reveals how selfish you are,” “Tourists Go Home! You Are the spread — COVID-19,” “Tourists did you bring us COVID” and “Tourists, Before you came, you checked the COVID count here didn’t you? So you know you could be responsible for bringing us community spread COVID. Negligent Homicide?”

The posting of simple anti-tourism signs had been going on for about a month. The whited-out sign is believed to have happened the night of June 23, “as best as we can tell,” Braden said.

“There are some local people who don’t want tourists and they’re custom-making signs and stickers and posting them around town,” he said.

He said there were even plywood signs screwed to Oregon Department of Transportation signs with similar messages.

So far, he said, the paper signs and stickers just required a few man hours to take them down. But repainting amounts to real vandalism.

“Vandalizing signs is more than just posting a sticker,” Braden said. “We want to let it be known that this is happening and want to find out who it is to prosecute them.”

Sajonia said she is fully behind Braden’s efforts to get the vandalism stopped.

“It’s a criminal offense; it’s defacing public property,” the mayor said. “Larry was pretty upset about it and I back him on it.”

Braden said he sees a clear line between the First Amendment freedom of expression and committing a crime such as vandalism.

“Honestly, with the freedom of speech thing, I’m OK, but when we have to start spending taxpayer dollars to fix it, this is vandalism and it’s crossing the line,“ he said. “This vandalism is what I’d like to get stopped.”

Sajonia agreed.

“It’s important for people to have opinions, but they can’t deface public property,” she said. “It’s owned by the taxpayers.”

Sajonia, who owns a business in downtown Joseph, said business owners are making their surveillance videos available to the sheriff’s office in hopes of catching the perpetrator.

Braden said the Joseph Chamber of Commerce was “particularly disgruntled” at the signs and asked permission to spray-paint them with black to cover the antitourism message.

Braden didn’t have a solid estimate, but he said to repair the damage would cost “thousands of dollars.” He said when he talked to his public works department, he was told it would take about two days of man hours to strip and repaint the whited-out sign.

Comment was unavailable from the Joseph Chamber of Commerce and the sheriff’s office.

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