More States Require Masks In Public As COVID-19 Spreads, But Enforcement Lags

Jul 8, 2020
Originally published on July 8, 2020 11:08 pm

A growing number of governors and mayors are working to slow the spread of the coronavirus by requiring people to wear masks in public places.

Experts say these public health rules will reduce the risk of people getting sick. But some local police and sheriffs are refusing to enforce the rules.

"COVID-19 is not going away. In fact, it's getting worse," warned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, when he announced his state's mask mandate ahead of the July Fourth weekend.

"One of the best ways to keep businesses open while also slowing the spread is for everyone to wear a face covering," he said.

Abbott said people who don't comply face fines of up to $250.

Legal experts generally agree that government officials have the authority to take these steps. The science is clear that masks help reduce new infections.

But Jason Bridges, the sheriff in Nacogdoches County, Texas, announced in a Facebook video that he won't enforce his state's rule.

"I believe in our constitutional rights, and this is borderline infringing on some of those constitutional rights in my belief," he said, adding that he supports voluntary mask wearing.

In addition to Bridges' civil liberties concerns, he also said public health enforcement during the pandemic "is not something we have time to be doing."

Police in Arizona and California have issued similar public statements.

In California, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said because of the "minor nature of the offense" and the "potential for negative outcomes," his deputies won't enforce the state's mask mandate.

In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened this week to withhold up to $2.5 billion in aid to local police departments that refuse to enforce the mask rule and other pandemic-related mandates.

"If they choose to not do that, we will redirect those dollars to communities that are," Newsom said, noting that state employees have already stepped up their efforts.

"Over the last few days, we significantly increased enforcement, with close to 6,000 in-person visits to bars and restaurants," he said.

Most public health experts say education and voluntary compliance are the biggest factors that shape mask wearing.

But Mical Raz, a physician and historian of public health policy in Rochester, N.Y., says some enforcement "is necessary to show that we're serious about this."

Enforcement is mostly about messaging, Raz said. She pointed to an incident in San Francisco during the deadly influenza pandemic in 1918, when the mayor of San Francisco was seen flouting that city's mask rule.

"He was fined and he had to pay. I think that was a valuable moment to show this rule affects everybody," she said.

But as the economy reopens in much of the U.S., enforcing mask mandates won't be easy.

This week, outside a convenience store in upstate New York, Brian Nguam acknowledged breaking his state's rule when he shopped for snacks without a face covering.

"I don't really care," Nguam told NPR. "I'm sorry, but I honestly don't see the point."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has publicly scolded local police who've mostly declined to ticket people who don't wear masks.

Without more enforcement, businesses are often left to decide how and when to confront customers who don't comply.

Retailers and chambers of commerce in Maine are broadcasting a public service announcement imploring people not to "get upset" with employees when they require people to don masks.

"They're just doing their job and trying to make it safe for you," the ad says.

This week the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a national trade group, published a public letter saying workers had faced "instances of hostility and violence" from customers who refused to wear masks.

The group called for all states to impose mask requirements and enforce them. "This should no longer be up for debate," the letter said.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mask up - that's what a growing number of governors are saying. And they're not just suggesting it. Now more governors are making it mandatory to wear masks to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But as NPR's Brian Mann reports, some local police officials and sheriffs are refusing to enforce the new mask rules.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Over the last couple weeks as COVID-19 cases exploded across the U.S., governors from Kansas to West Virginia set aside the politics of mask-wearing and gave citizens a simple mandate - mask up or else. Here's Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: This safe standard requires Texans to wear masks in public spaces.

MANN: In counties with significant coronavirus cases, Abbott said, people could face fines up to $250 if they don't comply. Legal experts generally agree mayors and governors have the legal authority to do this. And the science is clear - masks reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Dr. Mical Raz is a medical historian and physician in Rochester, N.Y.

MICAL RAZ: I think some amount of enforcement is necessary to show that we're serious about this and that we mean it.

MANN: The idea, Raz says, is that enforcement is really about messaging. She points to an example during the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic.

RAZ: In San Francisco in 1918, when there was a mask rule and the mayor was seen not wearing a mask, he was fined. And he had to pay. And I think that's a valuable moment to show that, you know, this rule affects everybody and there are consequences.

MANN: But there's a hitch. Most of the enforcement of mask mandates falls to local police and sheriffs. And across the country, many law enforcement leaders say they just won't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JASON BRIDGES: I believe in our constitutional rights. I believe in your constitutional rights. And this is borderline infringing on some of those constitutional rights in my belief.

MANN: That is Jason Bridges, sheriff in Nacogdoches County, Texas, speaking in a video he posted on Facebook. Bridges supports voluntary mask-wearing but says his officers won't enforce Governor Abbott's mandate.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

BRIDGES: Keeping up with people who's wearing mask and who's not is not something that we have time to be doing.

MANN: Local police have issued similar public statements in Arizona and in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom threatened this week to withhold up to $2.5 billion in aid to police departments that won't enforce the mask rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: If they choose to not do that, we will redirect those dollars to communities that are.

MANN: But enforcing mask mandates won't be easy. This week, outside a convenience store in upstate New York, Brian Nguam acknowledged he broke his state's rules shopping for snacks without a mask.

BRIAN NGUAM: I don't really care. I'm sorry. But I honestly don't see the point.

MANN: Like, what if you were to get somebody else sick? Would that bum you out?

NGUAM: I'd feel bad.

MANN: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly scolded local police who've mostly declined to ticket people who don't wear masks. Without enforcement, businesses are often left to decide how and when to confront customers who don't comply. Retailers and a chamber of commerce in Maine are running this public service announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If we all wear masks, we're all going to stay healthy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How are you doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Please don't get upset with our people. They're just doing their job, and they're trying to make it safe for you.

MANN: This week, a retail industry group published a public letter calling for all states to impose mask requirements and enforce them.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HALIFAX PIER'S "CHANCE TO LEAVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.