By Elizabeth Rosenthal
I was a reporter in Rome in 2005 when Italy banned smoking in restaurants. I was skeptical. For many Italians, having a cigarette with after-dinner coffee was simply part of the meal, like dessert. Also, Italians are famously lax about following rules: They dodge their taxes and park on sidewalks. As I wrote back then: “Smokers declared — basta! — they would never comply.”
But to my shock (and ease of breathing, since I have asthma), very quickly everyone did.
If the Italians could do it with cigarettes, how come so many people in the United States aren’t following relatively simple mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans?
Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., have some sort of mask mandate, but many citizens and law enforcement agencies are blatantly ignoring them.
On Sept. 13, President Donald Trump held an indoor rally with thousands of mostly unmasked supporters in Henderson, Nevada, in violation of a state mandate that prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people. Last week, Trump held a rally in an airport hangar outside Pittsburgh, where thousands of mostly maskless people were crammed, cheering, cheek-to-jowl — even though the governor had asked the campaign to follow the state’s COVID-19 rules on mask use and social distancing.
An infectious disease doctor in Florida told me she felt safest when she was in the hospital because, she estimated, fewer than a fifth of the people in her community were masking or social distancing in stores, despite a mask mandate.
Some conservative groups have challenged governors’ broad authority to order COVID-19 prevention measures. Last week, a judge appointed by Trump overturned Pennsylvania’s limits on gatherings. But the legal standing is relatively clear. “Governors absolutely have the authority during a public health emergency to make laws — to force people to wear masks, to limit gatherings,” said Jaime King, an expert on health law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “So I’m perplexed at why people say, ‘You can’t force me.’”
People who act as if these rules are optional might point to a double standard, asking why they should have to obey when others — such as protesters against racial injustice this summer — didn’t. But at the protests I observed in Washington and New York City, everyone was wearing masks and mostly kept at least 3 feet apart, outdoors and moving. Yes, some people broke curfews, but there were very visible attempts at enforcement.
Mark Hall, a professor of health care law and public health at Wake Forest University, noted that there are what he calls “hortatory laws” — laws that are more about encouraging social norms rather than mandating behavior. But, he said, those involve “trivial” trespasses. “This does seem like a law that has much more serious consequences,” he said about the masking measures. “It’s not jaywalking or loitering or pooper scooping.”
Maybe people just don’t like masks. But we routinely obey — and police officers routinely enforce — laws with which we don’t entirely agree.
You might think you can drive safely much faster than the speed limit. So maybe you push the boundary a bit, driving 65 in a 55-mph zone. But those who drive 70, 80 or more know they could well get a big ticket and so they (mostly) curb the impulse.
Many people originally objected to seat belt laws as an infringement on personal freedoms, but who doesn’t buckle up these days? Not smoking in restaurants and stores is now inviolable. My family had a dog in New York City when the Canine Waste Law took effect in 1978, and it was gratifying to watch women in minks suddenly start doing their pooper-scooping duty.
A big part of the reason adherence has been so variable is that governors generally declare the mandates, and local and city officials are left to decide how to enforce them. And these simple, sensible laws to protect public health have been politicized and wrapped up in controversy as no such laws before.
So now we have some law enforcement officials announcing that they won’t enforce masking laws or limits on gatherings imposed by their own governors in states like Ohio and Wisconsin.
“A sheriff or police chief giving advance notice that it’s OK to break the law?” said Hall. “There’s a new level of lawlessness to that.” Imagine the authorities announcing it was fine to ignore stop signs.
The Italians’ miraculous turnaround on restaurant smoking offers lessons. There was consistent messaging: The law was there to protect nonsmokers’ health. And there were fines: 275 euros, around $320 today, for people smoking, and 220 euros for the restaurant managers or owners. The Italian police, who themselves could frequently be seen smoking while walking their beats, enforced the rule.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo was one of the few American governors who approached the coronavirus edicts almost militaristically (so un-New York) and got a tragic outbreak under control. In Maryland, a state with a Republican governor, a man who had two parties of 50 people at his home was sentenced to a year in jail.
But more governors have enforced these mandates timidly, almost apologetically. In many states, the message was muddled. In Pennsylvania, where disobedience could, on paper, lead to a $300 fine or up to 30 days in prison, state officials announced it wouldn’t be enforced against individuals. Officials announced businesses could face citations if they didn’t enforce the law, but the state was otherwise relying on citizens’ “good sense and cooperative spirit.”
The repercussions from the Trump rally that defiantly ignored Nevada’s mandate? An angry tweet from the state’s Democratic governor criticizing “reckless and selfish actions.” Donald Ahern, the businessman who allowed the event to take place in his company’s warehouse, was fined $3,000.
Enforcement is difficult when “permission comes from the top,” said King. How can we expect Americans to mask up when they’re watching a Trump rally and “even he is breaking the law”?
Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor in chief of Kaiser Health News, was an emergency room physician before becoming a journalist. She reported for The New York Times for 22 years and is the author of “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back.” @RosenthalHealth
Lynn Hendricks says
I traveled in June up North via car. While mask wearing was sporadic in Fla., Ga., S. C., N. C., and Va, once I hit Maryland and every state thereafter, everyone was wearing a mask. I felt so safe there and comfortable shopping in stores, the mall and the supermarkets. Restaurants had not opened fully yet, but everyone was complying with mask wearing and using hand sanitizers which was available everywhere. It is no wonder that Covid is under control in the Northeast and on the rise everywhere else.
R. S. says
I believe that the wearing of masks pivots on the misunderstanding that one wears masks to protect oneself. If that were true, then wearing masks would indeed be a matter of personal choice. However, one wears masks to protect also others. That fact makes the wearing of masks a communal choice. Because many a person might be an asymptomatic carrier and spreader of the virus, it’s a matter of improved and more comfortable social interaction when all people wear masks. So it’s not a sign of individual strength or weakness if one does or does not wear a mask; it’s a statement that one cares when one wears a mask.
The distinction between “laws” and “mandates” is obviously lost on you so allow me to line it out.
Laws are enforceable. Mandates are not.
Our county Sheriff grasped that as soon as the state and local governments issued their “mandates”, and told the citizenry not to pester his office about people not “obeying” them.
Why is it so hard for you to understand that?
Who’s ur daddy says
So, you are saying that our Sheriff doesn’t believe everyone should wear a mask? Also, why did the foul mouth trump supporter verbally assaulting ppl in town center think Our Sheriff might be “his buddy?” Does our Sheriff believe COVID is not dangerous to the citizens of this community? Why do so many anti science, non- maskers walking around believe Our Sheriff is encouraging this endangerment if vulnerable and older Palm Coast residents? Could it be because there are only signs saying “don’tdrink and drive “ without any flashing signs reminding people here including visitors to mask up and social distance? Law or no it’s the only way the pandemic is going to stop spreading.
If someone is an elected official, they’ve taken an Oath to protect and serve ALL our citizens not just the ones who’s political ideals they share. So, it’s not a law, thanks to a governor under the thumb of a corrupt president but the sheriffs department needs to encourage mask wearing and continued social distancing in writing and verbally. Hmm…
Why is it so hard for YOU to understand that like the Gentleman above implied a Mandate of this kind for this reason shouldnt have to be Police enforced. Common sense would tell any reasonable adult that it is the proper Societal sacrifice for the betterment of all to do their part in a small temporary way to help minimize a potential continual spread of C19. Simple, easy
Okay proud boy. The difference isn’t the point, it’s the meaning and reason for wearing one, in other words being a conscientious human being. But since that’s lost on you, let me spell it out so you can understand: You Care About No One But You. Sound about right?
Bet you want to tell others how to live their lives though, if a woman can have an abortion, if LGBTQ people have equal rights, but don’t tell YOU to wear a mask ‘cause that’s infringing on YOUR rights. Your words speak volumes, proud boy.
Vikki hardley says
Since Gov DeSantis signed off hand opened everything up. WHY do we here in Palm Coast still have to wear masks? Does the mayor override the Governor??? What’s going on?
So YOU dont infect other people genius thats why. Get over your selfish self already SMH Geez
Businesses are independent of the governor and can do whatever they want. If businesses in Palm Coast and the city building itself want to enforce mask wearing, it’s their prerogative. If you don’t want to abide by the rules of a business, then go somewhere else as that is your prerogative too.
All you anti-mask people are such hypocrites it kills me. You’re the first ones screaming about your rights but are fine denying rights to others. How’s it feel?
Not a Unicorn says
What? What the actual hell are you talking about? A question that dumb has got to be either a small child or a bot. Unless
U just crawled from under a rock, you’re aware of the global pandemic. Is DeSantis your God? He is a politician. A trumper science denier. He wants to get into the whitehouse so he does whatever trump says and whatever trump says is self serving. How many thousand reasons do you need for wearing a mask let me put it simple for ya: Masks need to be worn to slow and stop the spread of the contagion called COVID which can sicken and kill others if you do not wear a mask. The governor is not a Physician. His actions are politically motivated. You wear a mask for the same reason you can’t smoke at your desk at work, you wear a mask for the same reason you don’t run red lights, you wear a mask for the same reason you don’t put poison in food you serve at a dinner party, you wear a mask for the same reason you don’t drive your car into a group of people waiting in line for a concert, you wear a mask for the same reason you don’t walk around urinating and defecating in public places, you wear a mask for the same reason you use a condom while having sex. These are but a few examples. Only trashy people don’t care about themselves, others or their own families.
Learn how to listen and maybe u won’t have to ask again.
You wear a mask to protect yourself period. Ask anyone who has ever experienced contaminated air. It’s to protect yourself. Wear a mask all day if you like to it’s your right. 1st rule of PPE is you are responsible for your PPE. Not anyone else. Doctors, nurses, fireman, woodworks, welders and a million others, wear them to protect themselves. Let’s be real, not to protect the person next to them. Wear you mask. I support you. But don’t fool yourself.
Not with stupid says
No. Your comment is not backed by science. Studies show that everyone needs to wear a mask. The person that has it, is asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic/symptomatic must wear a mask. It stops the particles from totally spewing into the air when u talk, yell, sing, respirate, cough or sneeze. If someone is subjected to your droplets or aerosol, just their mask alone is not enough. BOTH need to wear a mask. Study medical journals. Talking about woodworkers. Has nothing to do with COVID unless the woodworker is shopping etc in public. It’d be impractical/impossible to put a mask on a chair leg while sanding it. Nurses and Doctors place a mask on every single patient if they come in contact with them or they’re even in the building as a visitor. When you become a MD then you can talk about virology and epidemiology. P.S. trump etc have COVID. Despite all the pre- testing required. He didn’t wear a mask and neither did his partners in crime. Ping, ping, ping, ping. Clicking for ya yet? Bless ur heart…
CB from PC says
Wear a mask, period.
If someone told you it was required to wash your hands after using the restroom, would you ignore that mandate?
And as far as the “Italians are famously lax about following rules:” comment by the “writer” of this “story”, more RACISM,, ignored as always depending on the source.
When is Robert Byrd’s nameplate coming down wherever it is?
Frannie Paulson says
We have two small homes…one in FL and one in NC. We travel between the two regularly and everywhere we go everyone is wearing a mask. We wear ours every time. Everyone we know also wears their masks. Both Dems and Republicans. Mask wearing and hand washing and social distancing make sense! Plus, what’s the harm (for most people) in wearing a mask? And to those who attend crowded demonstrations or protests or rallies or whatever, without masks…everyone I know thinks the whole lot of them are morons, perpetuating the spread of this virus. I understand we All want to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Lockdowns are terrible. We cannot continue to keep kids out of school, adults out of work. We just need to be smart and wear masks, wash hands, social distance and avoid close jammed crammed crowds. The sooner we all get that through our thick, stubborn, ignorant selfish heads, the better it will be for ALL of us. I am a 3 time cancer warrior. I refuse to stay locked down. I hope everyone I continue to encounter out in public recognizes and does the morally right thing. We are all counting on each other, strangers and friends and families. #unity #doUntoOthers
All you had to do with this article, is keep it non political and it could be taken seriously. But you chose to make it political and biased by not admitting that the “concern” you have also applied “mostly peaceful” protests that have been occurring are throughout the country. You sight some that you observed apparently in person in a week attempt. How about those you did not “observe” that were shown though briefly and without concern in the media? Like the MSM, you use a serious subject into a biased political tool inline with a narrative that fits your bias. All you have done is stoke the political division in the country.
Exit 81 says
We wear a mask to prevent the spread of the Covid virus. We wear a mask to protect the vulnerable among us. We wear a mask to show we care. Don’t let your ignorance kill Grandma.