State, county and city officials increasingly are ordering residents to wear masks and maintain social distance amid a rise in coronavirus cases across the country.
But those orders seldom include any means to enforce them or penalties for violators. Elected leaders, law enforcers and social science experts are divided on whether enforcement is needed to ensure compliance with public health measures.
“I think it’s symbolically important, if nothing else,” said Joel Johnson, professor of government at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “It’s far more common [though] to have a penalty attached but not have active enforcement, like jaywalking.”
South Dakota’s COVID-19 infection rates are among the highest in the nation, which has seen more than 11 million diagnosed infections and more than 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus. On Tuesday, the Sioux Falls City Council voted to demand mask-use inside businesses and city buildings.
But there’s no penalty for violating the mandate, which one dissenting councilman called a “suggestion.”
“With the removal of that [penalty], as well as that change in the position of those health care partners, I would very likely support it,” Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said before Tuesday’s vote, explaining why last week he vetoed the same measure that would have fined violators $50.
Sioux Falls isn’t alone. In Philadelphia, the officials at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority maintain they won’t fine riders who refuse to wear masks, following negative attention after a man’s forcible removal from a bus in April for refusing to wear a mask.
In New York, some county sheriffs have announced that they won’t enforce Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s social distancing order, which limits household parties to 10 people in front of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“I have no plans to utilize my office’s resources or deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner,” Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard said in a news release. “This national holiday has created longstanding family traditions that are at the heart of America, and these traditions should not be stopped or interrupted by Governor Cuomo’s mandates.”
Social scientists say negative reinforcements aren’t necessarily the only way to bring compliance for behaviors. Brian Higgins, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the analogy to rare enforcement of jaywalking is an apt one.
“They just realize how dangerous it can be,” said Mr. Higgins, a former police chief of Bergen County, New Jersey. “You can write as many tickets as you want about jaywalking and very few people choose not to do it because they’re going to get a ticket.”
Instead, the power of the bully pulpit in backing a mask mandate moves social behavior, he said.
Last Friday, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued a monthlong mask mandate that carries a penalty of up to $1,000. Almost immediately, a sheriff in Stark County in western North Dakota announced he wouldn’t enforce the mandate.
However, Lt. Derik Zimmel of the Grand Forks Police Department told The Washington Times that “enforcement” is a broad term that doesn’t have to mean handcuffs and a trip to the county jail.
“If you’re doing a traffic enforcement and stop someone and issue a warning, it’s still an enforcement action,” said Lt. Zimmel, who noted that his officers have done a “dozen or so” such enforcements since the mandate’s implementation. “You’re sending a message, you’re educating them, and you’re hopefully going to gain voluntary compliance from that person.”
Days before a statewide mandate, city council member David Schloegel in Jamestown, North Dakota, fought for an amendment to penalize violators of a citywide mask mandate, saying he didn’t believe people would follow a mandate without a penalty. But he also didn’t want anyone going to jail.
“I work in the jail, and we want to keep numbers down and not put a misdemeanor on someone’s record for not wearing a mask,” Mr. Schloegel said. “But there needed to be something.”
He applauded the governor’s order but said it came too late.
A study published in June in Health Affairs found that mask mandates correlate with declines in the daily COVID-19 growth rate, averting 200,000 cases over six weeks in April and May.
Some states have taken the opposite tack, threatening costly penalties and even jail time for failing to mask-up. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, announced violators of the state’s six-person party rule could face up to 30 days in jail or a fine of $1,250. In Michigan, Washtenaw County commissioners unanimously passed a $1,000 fine for violators of the COVID-19 emergency orders.
In New York, fines can run $15,000 a day for violating the mass gathering prohibition.
But enforcement can prove hazardous, as well. In Maryland, Anne Arundel County’s health officer told the Capital Gazette that health inspectors are experiencing harassment in person and on social media for enforcing coronavirus restrictions.
Still, in many places, ticketing persons for failing to don facial coverings is rare, if nonexistent.
Amid record-breaking spikes in COVID infections, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, implemented a mask mandate for everyone over the age of 2 when inside a public space “and within six feet of individuals who are not members of their household for 15 minutes or longer.”
But her proclamation includes a range of exceptions, including people participating in religious services or sporting events, or persons working who can maintain six feet of distance for others.
And law enforcement in the state’s biggest cities have told local media they’d rather educate rule-breakers than issue fines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced the use of masks protects wearers and those around the wearers.
While Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has discouraged large gatherings for Thanksgiving as America faces a third-wave of the virus, a new survey from Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center shows that 40% of Americans plan to attend large gatherings.