CAPITAL REGION — Face masks are going to become even more common in public places, from grocery stores to parks, as the state continues to fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new executive order on Wednesday that requires people across the state to wear a face mask — or some other face covering — if they are in public and cannot maintain at least six feet between themselves and other people. Until now, face coverings have been recommended, but not mandated, as a way of trying to stop the spread of the virus.
“[If] you’re not going to be able to maintain social distance, you must wear a mask or cloth or an attractive bandana or a color-coordinated bandana,” Cuomo said.
Someone who should be wearing a mask but isn’t could face a civil fine, but that seems unlikely to happen locally. While COVID-19 cases have been reported in all local counties, the illness doesn’t have the same level of prevalence as seen in the metropolitan New York City area.
Most local law enforcement officials in the Capital Region said that they strongly support the idea of wearing face coverings, but the order will be difficult to enforce, and they want to focus first on trying to educate people who aren’t wearing coverings when they should.
“It’s going to save lives. But enforcement-wise, it will be education,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael H. Zurlo, who said most county residents are already being good about practicing social distancing and wearing some kind of covering when appropriate.
The Centers for Disease Control on April 3 recommended that all people should wear nonsurgical cloth face coverings when they go out in public during the pandemic, but that recommendation was non-binding. In California and some other coronavirus hotspots across the country, some county governments have mandated face coverings with the threat of being fined up to $1,000 for violations.
Cuomo’s order takes effect on Friday, to give people time to obtain or make a mask if they don’t have one. “We’ll give people three-day notice to allow compliance. Just on the off chance that somebody doesn’t have a cloth covering or a mask, and we’ll go from there,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo said enforcement of his order will be up to local governments, and a civil fine is possible.
State police, who are wearing protective masks in all close encounters with the public, plan to simply explain the need to people who aren’t complying, said state police spokesman Beau Duffy.
“If troopers witness members of the public violating any of the state’s orders, they will explain the restriction and ask them to comply,” Duffy said.
In Schenectady, police officers are already wearing masks while in the station and in certain encounters with the public, Schenectady Police Department spokesman Sgt. Matthew Dearing said.
“Officers will be directed to continue to educate the public on orders being issued by both Governor Cuomo and Mayor [Gary] McCarthy,” Dearing said. Education and voluntary compliance is what officers strive to do in nearly every case. However, if enforcement actions are necessary, they will be taken.”
Montgomery County isn’t planning active enforcement, short of somebody being outright resistant, county Sheriff Jeff Smith said.
“The only thing we doing is asking people to abide by the executive order,” Smith said. “All the executive order says is that you need some kind of face covering, it doesn’t have to be a mask, it can be anything. Our enforcement involvement will be simply education. These orders are about trying to keep us all healthy.”
In Schenectady County, the town of Glenville has a number of supermarkets and large department stores, like Walmart and Target, where people could potentially be close to each other. Even in town parks, Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle said, the town has received complaints about gatherings in apparent defiance of social distancing recommendations.
But Koeztle said the governor isn’t giving local governments any new resources to enforce the order, and the Glenville Police Department doesn’t have the resources to enforce it.
“It’s nothing new in state of New York that they continue to put the burden on local government,” Koetzle said. “Talking to my police chief, there’s no capacity for us to actively enforce this — it’s really just another example of [Cuomo] putting mandates down onto local governments.”
Koetzle also questioned how effectively any requirement could be enforced, since the courts are closed and judges aren’t available to impose fines. “All [officers] could do is issue an appearance ticket,” he said. “We can’t forceably put a mask on someone.”
The governor’s order specially mentioned riding public transportation as a time when the public should be wearing a face covering. The Capital District Transportation Authority, which has seen a major drop in ridership since COVID-19 rules went into effect, is strongly recommending those who ride comply with the requirement.
“The governor’s executive order is clear, and we follow all guidance and directives from his office, this will be no different,” said Jaime Watson, CDTA’s director of corporate communications. “We hope this is a no-brainer for those who are still riding with us to make those essential trips to work, medical facilities, grocery stores and pharmacies. It’s a move that protects our operators, customers and other CDTA employee who have direct contact with the public. Everyone is anxious to get back to a sense of normalcy, but until then we need to take the steps necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 so we can get on that path quicker.”
Bus operators have been provided with masks and had the option to wear them, but now they will be required to wear them, Watson said.
The CDC website outlines instructions on how to make a homemade mask and how to wear one.