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A city in Texas apparently became the first in the country to institute a fine for residents who don’t wear masks to places like grocery stores.
A city on the U.S.-Mexico border appeared to be the first in the nation to require that all residents engaged in certain public activities wear face masks in an effort to stem the spread of Covid-19—while also threatening to fine any violators.
In Laredo, Texas, one of the first cities in the country to impose a curfew in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the city council voted last week to issue fines on those caught without some type of face covering when engaging in certain activities. Residents over the age of five are now required to wear a “homemade mask, scarf, bandana, or handkerchief” when entering buildings still open to the public, using public transportation, taxis, or ride sharing options like Lyft and Uber, or when pumping gas. A mask isn’t required when people take walks for exercise or engage in other “permissible outside physical activities.”
Violating the new rule in Laredo could result in a $1,000 fine—a penalty that some city council members said during debate would be difficult for residents if they recently lost their jobs or suffered financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. Councilman George Altgelt described the financial penalty as the better of two bad options. “I’d rather bury them in debt than bury them in a coffin,” he said.
Four days after Laredo imposed the new restrictions, a small city north of Los Angeles said they could soon follow suit. As officials in Lancaster, California discussed their new mask requirement, Mayor R. Rex Parris said he would come back to put penalties in the requirement if people don’t comply.
“I’m hoping that I don’t have to put a consequence on this ordinance. Make no mistake, that’s exactly what we will do. And we will start issuing tickets for misdemeanors if it comes down to that,” Parris said, reported the Antelope Valley Press.
Across the country, state and local officials are considering similar measures in light of recent studies that estimate 25% of people infected with Covid-19 could be asymptomatic but still pass the virus on to others. So far, most recommendations made by public health officials regarding mask usage have been voluntary.
Public health officials say that homemade fabric masks won’t necessarily stop someone from catching Covid-19, but they can remind people not to touch their faces. For people who are asymptomatic carriers of the disease, masks can lessen the chance that a person sheds the virus to others who aren’t infected.
The CDC last week issued its own recommendations that all Americans wear face masks in places like grocery stores and pharmacies where maintaining a six foot distance from someone is difficult or impossible. “The virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” a statement from the CDC reads. “In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
New York City and Los Angeles last week recommended residents use masks, stressing the need for everyone to do their part in combating the spread of Covid-19. “When you put on that face covering, you’re protecting everyone else,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “A lot of people out there, right this minute, don’t even know they have it.”
Some public officials fear that encouraging residents to wear masks could lead to further shortages of critical personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors. At a press conference about the new regulations in Laredo, City Manager Robert Eads said that the city is “begging” residents “not to seek out N95 masks from our medical community.” In King County, Washington, public health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin stressed that the public should not be trying to find professional-grade surgical masks and to opt instead for homemade alternatives. “Medical masks are needed for healthcare workers who are caring for patients with COVID-19,” Duchin said. “For the general public, homemade fabric masks, especially if well-made and fit, may provide some benefit.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, in his announcement suggesting residents of the city use facial coverings, was quick to clarify that wearing a mask does not exempt people from the stay-at-home order in effect in California, nor are masks a substitute for social distancing. “To be clear, you should still stay at home,” Garcetti said. “This isn’t an excuse to suddenly all go out.”
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