Mask Mandates Spread, But Thorny Problems Remain With No Unified Strategy

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The willingness of Oregonians to stem COVID-19 cases will be tested this week when residents in seven counties that are home to more than half the state’s population will be required to wear masks.

The mandate, which starts Wednesday, requires customers to wear face coverings at stores, in gyms, on public transit, at barber shops and hair salons and in shopping malls. They will not be required in restaurants or bars while eating or drinking or at pools while swimming.

The order, by Gov. Kate Brown, puts Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Hood River, Marion, Polk and Lincoln counties in line with the fast-swelling ranks of cities, counties and states around the country where officials are imposing mask requirements in most indoor public spaces.

Elected officials are resorting to the orders because they’re under a dual pressure. To revive their economies, they are relaxing the initial severe pandemic lockdowns. Yet at the same time, they are alarmed by continued spiking of cases to record highs. In Oregon, they’re surging. For the seven days ending June 22, there were 1,138 new cases and 14 deaths, the Oregon Health Authority reported.

Widespread mask usage, especially by shoppers and others in public, is a straightforward way to slow the spread of the disease while letting businesses function, experts from the World Health Organization and elsewhere say.

But mask mandates can trigger a host of problems: Will people comply? Will they be openly defiant or exploit exemptions, for example for people with a medical disability that precludes them from wearing a mask? Who, if anyone, will enforce the mandates? What will be the penalties?

These questions are now coming increasingly into focus around the country.

Masks have become a political flashpoint, Seth Gillihan, a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote on the Psychology Today website.

“Face masks are tied to the political conflict over our response to the coronavirus,” he wrote last month. “Those who lean left politically tend to see the virus as a more dire threat; those on the right are more likely to downplay its seriousness.’  

Masks trigger feelings of “us versus them,” dividing people who wear masks from those who don’t, he wrote “Conflict over masks is likely to continue as the debate over how and when to reopen the country intensifies.” 

Resistance Most Common In U.S., Europe

Compared to residents in China and other East Asian countries, many Americans and Western Europeans resist government mask-wearing edicts.

“In China, the issue of masking finds no dispute at all from the government down to its citizens. Other neighboring areas – Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan – have in the very early phase of the pandemic witnessed a large number of their citizens wearing it by themselves, and governments in these places have to take swift actions to resolve the mask supply crisis through rationing and boosting of local productions,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Chan, a dean at the Open University of Hong Kong, in the Journal of Global Health Reports earlier this month.

In the United States, from the White House on down, a schism quickly opened up over masks. President Donald Trump refuses to wear one. They were handed out for free at his rally this weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but most attendees didn’t put them on. Yet an ever-swelling number of governments and businesses are imposing mandates.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, last week enacted an immediate statewide mask requirement on indoor shoppers, as well as people outdoors who are not 6 feet apart. 

That immediately sparked a backlash from some officials.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican, declared he will not enforce it. 

“Due to the minor nature of the offense (of not wearing a mask), the potential for negative outcomes during enforcement encounters, and anticipating the various ways in which the order may be violated, it would be inappropriate for deputies to criminally enforce the governor’s mandate,” Jones said in a statement. 

Some other Northern California law enforcement agencies followed suit. The mayor of tiny Nevada City in Northern California declared in a Facebook post that Newsom doesn’t have the legal authority to require masks.

Newsom has taken a non-confrontational approach thus far, saying he preferred  “persuasion” to enforcement.

“We’re not looking to fine people. We’re looking to educate people, encourage people,” Newsom said. “And to the extent that people flout and abuse, which may be the exception, then we have many tools in the tool kit."

In the state of Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee has resisted imposing mask mandates until this past weekend, when he directed retailers in Yakima County - a COVID-19 hot spot - to bar customers who fail to wear a mask. Previously, local officials in Yakima and in King County - home of Seattle - had urged but not required customers to wear masks.

California is hardly the only spot where compliance has become a sore spot.

Raleigh, North Carolina  imposed a sweeping indoor and outdoor mask requirement effective last Friday. Over the weekend, many young residents gathering on sidewalks in a popular entertainment district ignored the order.

From places as far flung as Texas, Arizona and Florida, counties and cities are rapidly imposing mask requirements on retail customers and other shoppers. They come atop states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut that imposed mask requirements on the general public early in the pandemic.

Oregon Fails To Address Enforcement

At a news conference last week, Brown sidestepped the issue of enforcement, saying that with her mask order she is “encouraging, cajoling, asking every Oregonian to be kind and to be smart.”

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state epidemiologist, said businesses will be able to refuse entry to people who don’t wear a mask.

Brown’s order requires businesses to make sure customers wear masks, with a few exceptions, such as when they are eating or drinking in restaurants or other similar venues. Customers don’t have to wear a mask if they have “a medical condition that makes it hard to breathe when wearing a mask,” or if they have a “disability that prevents the individual from wearing a mask,” the Oregon Health Authority said Friday.

Brown picked the seven counties because of their rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Oregon officials are hoping they have public sympathy on their side.

“Face covering requirements have been mandatory for employees of many businesses since the reopening process began in mid-May. Now, it is incumbent upon members of the public to also abide by the requirement to wear a face covering, while indoors and interacting with others in these spaces,” Brown spokesman Charles Boyle told The Lund Report.

“We are encouraging businesses to make face coverings available to customers when possible, and are working with them as they develop their own policies to implement this guidance. Under the governor’s executive orders, businesses and individuals not following this guidance could be subject to penalties, but, in order to best protect Oregonians from the spread of this disease, our focus is on education and seeking voluntary and widespread compliance to the greatest extent possible,” he wrote in an email.

No Cohesive Plan

The mishmash of mask requirements across the country is yet another example of the lack of a cohesive strategy against COVID-19, experts say. 

“We don’t really have a national plan that puts together what we are trying to do,” Michael Osterholm, director of the center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said on NBC’s Meet the Press over the weekend.

“We have 50 different states and the District of Columbia … all kind of with their own plan. We’re seeing in the past week how disjoined this is,” Osterholm said. As a result, he said, “We have not gotten the message across to the public yet” that the virus is very dangerous. Many consumers are quickly shifting “back to the pre-pandemic mindset,” he said.

So far, Oregon has been relatively lucky. Though COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed since counties started peeling back restrictions, the state has relatively few cases and deaths per capita compared with some other states. It now has more than 7,000 cases -- only 11 states have fewer according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- and fewer than 200 deaths. https://www.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/index.html#cases There are ample intensive care rooms available and nearly 800 ventilators on hand, according to the Oregon Health Authority. By comparison, in some other states, such as Florida, Alabama and Minnesota, ICU beds are filling up, according to news reports.

When the virus is so widespread that hospitals become crowded, the wearing of masks is less effective..

Brown and health officials hope to prevent a crisis. But just how the mask mandate will play out in Oregon remains to be seen.

The state’s urban areas covered by the new masking requirement are largely liberal, politically, and many residents may agree with the governor’s order. But getting everyone to comply may be another matter. Counties that want to join the mask mandate can ask the governor to be added to the list, Boyle noted.

In preparation for the mask requirement, the Oregon Health Authority released an alert on Monday, drawing attention to the proper way to wear a mask. Wash your hands before putting it on, ensure it covers your nose and tucks under your chin, and make sure it’s snug but that you can breathe, the agency said.

You can reach Christian Wihtol at [email protected].

 

 

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