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More state and local leaders are passing mandatory mask policies—including California on Thursday—to help slow the spread of coronavirus, which is rising in some places as restrictions are loosened.
A growing number of state and local officials are passing mandatory mask ordinances to slow the spread of coronavirus as the rate of infection continues to climb around the country.
Saying people are failing to sufficiently follow mask guidance on their own, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday issued an order requiring face coverings in public when a safe physical distance cannot be maintained with other people or in indoor settings like shopping or taking transit.
“Simply put, we are seeing too many people with faces uncovered—putting at risk the real progress we have made in fighting the disease,” Newsom said in a statement. “California’s strategy to restart the economy and get people back to work will only be successful if people act safely and follow health recommendations."
Masks are mandatory in bars and restaurants in Austin, Texas, with exceptions (no need for a mask when you’re actually eating or drinking, for example). They’re mandatory in most indoor public places in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and in Raleigh, North Carolina. In St. Petersburg, Florida, employees of all public businesses are required to wear face coverings in any part of a building that’s open to customers, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he was working on an executive order that will require masks in public buildings and areas where social distancing isn’t possible.
“Now is not the time to go out and behave as if life has returned to normal,” Turner told a local TV station. “It has not, and it won’t anytime soon.”
In Texas this week, where coronavirus case counts are hitting record numbers, local officials agitated for greater authority from the state to require masks. Turner and other large city mayors on Tuesday asked Gov. Greg Abbott for the ability to require face coverings in public, which the governor had resisted, saying he didn't want to see people jailed for failing to wear a mask.
But then Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez developed orders that will require local businesses to enforce mask rules or be subjected to fines, which other governments have since followed. Abbott on Wednesday said the workaround is permissible. "Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan," he said.
Face coverings have been recommended by public health officials for months, although at the beginning of the pandemic federal health officials said healthy people didn't need to wear them. That information was put out because of the pronounced shortages of surgical and N95 respirator masks needed by medical personnel, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top National Institutes of Health infectious disease expert, said last week. Since early April, the federal and local public health officials have emphasized that people should use masks in public, while also trying to maintain physical distance from other people.
Masks are an easy and effective way to slow the spread of the virus, which is transmitted primarily through “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Cloth face coverings may slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”
But people all over the country have chafed at the notion of being required to wear a mask in public places, saying it “infringes on their freedom of choice,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on Twitter. “But if more wear them, we’ll have MORE freedom to go out.”
Some local officials acknowledged that hesitation in their announcements. In a video explaining a forthcoming mandatory order in Stanislaus County, California—released before the governor issued his statewide order—Supervisor Kristin Olsen told residents she knew that the idea of required face coverings was “difficult for many people in our community.”
“I don’t like wearing one myself,” she said. “But face coverings are to protect other people from you. Wearing face coverings is about protecting our neighbors, our family members and our friends, and they will allow Public Health to open more businesses and activities in our county. Despite rumors to the contrary, the scientific and public health community at the state, local, federal and worldwide levels are in agreement about the benefits of face coverings.”
Still, some officials have been wary of issuing mandates. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, for example, refused to issue an executive order requiring them statewide and also blocked local lawmakers from passing their own mask orders for residents. He relented this week after new cases of the virus continued to climb in the state, with more than 2,500 reported on Thursday alone.
Local leaders then sprang into action. Mayors in Phoenix, Gilbert and Glendale said their city councils would vote on mandatory mask measures at their next meetings, while leaders in Mesa, Tempe, Tucson, Flagstaff and Tolleson said they would issue emergency proclamations requiring face coverings in public spaces.
Other leaders declined to change their policies. In Prescott Valley, a central Arizona town with about 42,000 residents, Mayor Kell Palguta said that existing measures were sufficient to restrict the spread of the virus, citing the county’s 97.4% negative test rate and low numbers of hospitalizations.
“I have made this decision based off of the current infection rate, how our town has been responding to this Covid-19 issue as well as to the logistical challenges that enforcement would pose on our first responders,” Palguta wrote on Facebook.
Citizens should weigh the pros and cons before venturing out, he added.
“If you do not feel comfortable or are at risk being in public around individuals not wearing masks then YOU should make the risk vs reward decision to stay home or not,” he wrote.
The decision to require masks—or not—comes as new research suggests that mandating their usage can reduce transmission of the virus.
The study, conducted by researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the University of Southern Denmark, focused on Jena, the first city in Germany to mandate facial coverings for people using public transportation and visiting stores.
The number of new Covid-19 infections in the city fell by 23% in the first 20 days after the rule went into effect, according to the study. Researchers combined that data with infection rates from other German regions that enacted mandatory mask rules at later dates and found that wearing a face covering in public reduces the daily growth rate of reported coronavirus cases by about 40%.
“This is a sizable effect,” researchers wrote in a discussion paper published by the Institute of Labour Economics. “Wearing face masks apparently helped considerably in reducing the spread of Covid-19.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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