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States and cities are introducing penalties for people who don't comply with mandatory mask policies. But enforcement is tricky, with some public officials and civil rights experts arguing fines are counterproductive.
When Delaware Gov. John Carney reopened the state’s beaches in May, he encouraged residents to wear masks on the sand—but mandated them on the boardwalks.
“Summer at the beach and the pool is a huge part of life for so many Delawareans,” Carney said in a statement announcing the May 22 reopening. “As we ease our way into a new normal, we’re trying to find ways for Delawareans to enjoy the outdoors and the company of their families.”
Since then, police in Rehoboth Beach—one of the state’s most popular coastal cities—have issued just one citation for non-compliance, to a Pennsylvania man who, despite “numerous warnings,” refused to give police his name or show identification after being told he had to wear a mask on the boardwalk. He spent an hour in custody in early June and was released with a civil citation—and a mask.
In that same time period, police have handed out more than 12,500 masks to people on the boardwalk. Last week, spurred by rising Covid-19 cases, city officials voted to make face coverings mandatory in all public spaces.
“As we are seeing right now, without these precautions, the community spread is real,” City Manager Sharon Lynn said in a statement. “The city has crowded streets and people who are not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing.”
At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, most public officials at all levels of government agree that people should wear masks in public places where it’s difficult to avoid others. But the question of whether that advice should become a requirement continues to divide leaders, with local officials often bemoaning the lack of state mandates or, in some cases, agitating for the authority to implement their own rules.
As the patchwork of Covid-19 mask regulations has continued to evolve, typically following surges in cases, other state and local leaders are now contemplating what, if any, penalty should be put in place to enforce compliance. In Virginia, for example, the mask policy—enforced by public health officials rather than law enforcement agencies—requires a court order to issue any kind of civil penalty. In North Carolina, citations are given only to business owners who don’t comply with the mandate—not to individual residents, while in Miami, people who “repeatedly” refuse to wear masks in public can be fined up to $500, though penalties begin with a warning in an attempt to “educate” people.
The addition of penalties comes after elected officials in many places spent months encouraging voluntary compliance with mask orders or suggestions, urging residents to protect themselves and others by donning face coverings in public spaces where social distancing—remaining at least 6 feet apart—is unrealistic. For some people, the decision to wear or require a mask became a political statement, while other residents expressed confusion about shifting guidance from public health agencies, which had initially discouraged mask-wearing among healthy people. (As stockpiles of medical supplies rebounded and researchers learned more about the virus and its transmission, health officials now recommend that everyone wear a mask in public.)
“The need to wear a mask is definitive,” said Dr. Brian Castrucci, president of the public health-focused de Beaumont Foundation. “There is little debate among public health leaders. Despite this, people are refusing to wear masks, often citing freedom or the Constitution—neither of which prohibit a mask-wearing ordinance. The policies are symbolic, but, at this point, it is not clear that we have the wherewithal to enforce mask-wearing.”
The logistics of enforcement are particularly difficult during a pandemic. Multiple governors have said they have no interest in jailing people for refusing to wear masks, as placing people in indoor cells is likely to accelerate transmission of the virus. In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott said explicitly that enforcement of his mandatory mask policy, enacted last week, would not include jail time.
“All of us have a collective responsibility to educate the public that wearing a mask is the best thing to do,” he said at a news conference. “Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing.”
Fines could be a more effective deterrent, other officials said. In Hillsborough County, Florida, commissioners voted to require “indoor business operators” to enforce mask-wearing or be subject to a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable with a $500 fine, six months probation and, potentially, jail time. The addition of a penalty was driven largely by Les Miller, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, who said that passing a mask policy without some sort of enforcement mechanism was no different than urging voluntary compliance.
“I cannot see us sitting here and making another strong recommendation,” he said at a June meeting of the county’s emergency policy group, which approved the order 5 to 3.
Even with penalties in place, enforcement can be difficult. States and municipalities are largely not tracking compliance with mask policies, and some law enforcement officials have been reluctant to enforce them. A dozen police departments and sheriff’s offices in eastern Texas responded to Abbott’s order by saying they would rely on “voluntary compliance” and would not issue citations to people who refuse to wear masks in public.
“We are in a public health crisis and we will use this opportunity to educate our community while still respecting individual liberties,” Lt. Scott Spencer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in southeastern Texas, said in a statement. “We encourage all citizens to take reasonable precautions in their own life to mitigate possible exposure by following all health department guidelines.”
Civil rights groups have also raised concerns about local enforcement. Fines may not address the underlying reasons that people don’t wear masks, said Jag Davies, a spokesman for the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“There’s a certain population that’s not wearing masks because of access. You fix that by giving them better access to masks,” he said. “For people who are not wearing masks on purpose, that’s where better public education needs to come in. There’s no evidence that these fines will have a deterrent effect, and the benefits of policing mask behavior likely do not outweigh the drawbacks.”
Multiple mask ordinances seem to acknowledge that risk, relying heavily on police and public health officials to issue warnings to first offenders and attempt to educate people about the importance of wearing masks. Some cities, including Tampa, have also sent officers into crowded areas to distribute masks to people who aren’t wearing them instead of writing tickets.
Theoretically, the introduction of fines could be a game-changer, Castrucci said. But for any mask mandate to be successful, a majority of the population still has to buy in.
“This will be about people more than policies,” he said. “Masks are uncomfortable. Quarantine fatigue is real. But, the virus is unrelenting. It doesn’t get frustrated or tired. It is there, just waiting until our resolve weakens. Mask wearing, while not perfect, is something that we can do to keep the economy moving while we wait for a vaccine or better medication.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route FIfty and is based in Washington, D.C.