Mask Mandates Without Enforcement Amount to Half-Measures

Issuing a ticket to a pedestrian for not wearing a mask in Miami is like issuing a ticket to a motorist for not wearing a seatbelt, states a specially-detailed Miami police officer. Welcome to the "new normal" in this coronavirus hotspot.

August 4, 2020, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

COVID-19 and Public Health

A Kroger store in Richmond Hill, Georgia seems to be taking the coronavirus public health threat seriously, but are its customers? | Kevin Chen Images / Shutterstock

In a well-argued Washington Post op-ed, Francis Suarez, the Republican mayor of Miami and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Dr. Vin Gupta, an assistant professor of health metrics sciences and pulmonary/critical care medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center, make the point that masks and facial coverings, a critical and proven tool to reduce viral spread, are only as effective as the enforcement measures that accommodate the mandate to wear them when in public.

We are at war with a silent and ruthless enemy, and mask mandates are among our best weapons to win the fight. But they have to have teeth to work...

In short, warnings to anyone not wearing a mask need to be backed up with the threat of fines and, for chronic offenders, even arrest. There is no time to waste on half-measures.

Gupta and Suarez emphasized the importance of both mask-wearing and enforcement of local mask mandates in an appearance on Morning Joe on July 30. Suarez states that "hundreds of the citations" have already been issued, and that the resource officers have "closed over 30 businesses that are not following the coronavirus guidelines" such as social distancing by allowing too many people in their stores, or violating the city curfew.

"We think that this mask rule in conjunction with closing businesses is the best remedial measure that we can right now to get the (coronavirus case) number down," said Suarez.

No state mandate

Unlike 33 other states where governors have issued mask mandates, Florida is one of only 17 states that lacks a statewide mask-wearing mandate as of July 31, according to AARP. Their 50-state list, which doesn't indicate penalties or enforcement, has links to the actual emergency orders. Georgia and Iowa are the only states that prohibit cities and counties from issuing their own mandates.

Florida hot spot

Florida has the dubious distinction of having the nation's highest coronavirus infection rate: 45.3 daily cases per 100,000 residents (7-day moving average), according to Harvard University's COVID Risk Levels Dashboard on August 2, followed by Mississippi and Tennessee. It has the nation's third highest test positivity rate, 19.1 percent on Aug. 2, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, after Mississippi and Alabama.

Since July 28, the Sunshine State has set four consecutive daily death records: 186, 216, 252 and 256 on July 31, according to Worldometer.

Miami, the largest city in South Florida and the county seat of Miami-Dade County, has the second most coronavirus infections in the nation, almost 116,000 on July 31, according to the Johns Hopkins U.S. county tracker, after Los Angeles County with 186,000, followed closely by Maricopa County (Phoenix) with almost 115,000.

Miami is a model for mask mandate enforcement

"[Miami] has assigned at least 39 police officers to make sure that residents are following the city’s mandatory mask ordinance," write Suarez and Gupta. Effective July 1, second-time offenders risked being cited. The fine doubled on July 22, and the courtesy warning eliminated. Residents are entitled for free masks.

Offenders will be warned but, if they refuse to comply, they will be fined. The first offense will cost $100 and the second another $100. With a third — God forbid — the offender will be arrested.

Two earlier city emergency orders mandating mask-wearing had been approved in April applicable to retail stores and contruction sites and while aboard the City's free trolley service.

Miami Neighborhood Resource Officers in action

Christina Vazquez, a reporter with WPLG/Local 10 News, accompanied a trio of the resource officers on the first day of the new $100 fine and filmed a male millennial being cited for not wearing a mask.

"It's so ridiculous, I don't know if I can participate in this insanity," Hinds [the pedestrian] said. "I feel silly because there is this non-existent pandemic."

Commander Freddie Cruz of the Miami Police Department compared the enforcing of the in-public mask rule to policing seat-belt violations or drivers running a red light.

"It is the new normal; we have to do it," Cruz said.

Hinds can pay his $100 COVID-19 Mask Citation online – note that the webpage also allows for payment of the Miami-Dade County mask citation as well. 

Masking as alternative to shut-downs?

Some "scientists have proposed that lockdowns could be avoided if 95% of the U.S. population would start to wear masks consistently in public," reports Rod Stein for NPR on July 28. "But currently mask usage is much lower than that. And some public health experts doubt masks alone could be enough."

Home gatherings could be next

Vazquez and David Selig reported on July 22 that Mayor Suarez indicated that the city is considering restricting the size of home gatherings, a major source of coronavirus transmission, perhaps adopting the Broward County emergency order that limits gatherings at home to 10 people.

The perfect storm

Like the Rio Grande Valley hotspot in Texas that was pounded by Hurricane Hanna on July 25, Tropical Storm Isaias, which may turn into a hurricane, will exacerbate the Florida coronavirus outbreak. It has already caused state-supported coronavirus testing sites to temporarily close at 5 p.m. on Thursday (July 31).

"The latest forecast shows the storm traveling close to Florida's Atlantic coast tomorrow, but it's still not clear if it will make landfall," reports CNN on August 1.

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