Face masks, once thought of as an unnecessary precaution for healthy people during the coronavirus pandemic, are now being mandated in cities and counties across the United States.
Late last week, the federal government reversed its position on face coverings, issuing guidance that urges people to wear them in public places. President Donald Trump stopped short of saying it should be required, but some local officials have taken enforcement into their own hands.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday ordered all residents to wear face coverings when visiting grocery stories, pharmacies and other essential businesses, as well as when entering ride-hail vehicles. This law is enforceable with a fine, imprisonment or both. Miami has issued a similar order.
Montgomery County, Maryland, a District of Columbia suburb of 1 million people, is poised to introduce a regulation next week that would require facial coverings for all essential employees by April 16 and all patrons of essential businesses by April 23.
Under the proposed regulation, anyone who enters an essential business in the county — such as a supermarket, bank or liquor store — without a facial covering could risk being turned away or found guilty of a civil violation and penalized with a fine.
Some lawmakers say such a mandate is necessary in the county that has been designated a hot spot for the virus, with more than 1,000 known infections and 26 deaths as of Wednesday night. Others warn that it may be difficult for businesses and residents to comply in the short time frame given that masks — even cloth ones — are in short supply.
“The [CDC] suggestion is inadequate,” said County Council member Hans Riemer, a Democrat and one of the lead sponsors for the regulation. “Just suggesting that people use this option is not protecting the workers.”
Jupiter Pastor, a manager at local grocery store Grosvenor Market, said about five of his employees have stopped coming in for shifts, fearful of contracting the virus.
“They’re scared; they don’t want to bring it home,” he said. “Who can blame them?”
Pastor added that a county-enforced mandate on facial coverings would be “awesome.” All employees at Grosvenor started wearing cloth masks and gloves two weeks ago, and customers who enter the 8,000-square-foot store are asked to use plastic gloves when handling produce.
Clark Construction, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, said it has procured cloth masks for all employees and is in the process of distributing them to job sites across the country. Safeway, which has 1,559 employees in the county, said reusable and disposable masks are being transported to all front-line associates at its grocery stores.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, said he is “not opposed” to regulation but is unsure whether it would be plausible for every resident to procure masks.
“Even the hospitals are struggling,” he said.
Garcetti said when announcing his order in Los Angeles that he waited to introduce the mandate until he was confident that there was an adequate supply of cloth masks in the city.
“Our capacity, thanks to the amazing apparel industry here, has expanded, and people can buy them online,” he said.
Riemer noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance on how to make cloth masks at home out of T-shirts and hair ties, adding, “This is not something that requires money or effort … It’s not difficult to do.”
Following the new federal guidelines on face coverings, some black Americans expressed concern that covering their faces may cause them to be treated with suspicion.
County Council member Will Jawando, a Democrat, said he is concerned that the enforcement of this mandate may create opportunities for racial profiling.
“We need carrots, not sticks,” said Jawando, one of two lawmakers who did not co-sponsor the regulation, along with council member Andrew Friedson, a Democrat.