SARATOGA SPRINGS — Maybe people only need a little reminder about wearing face masks to keep the COVID-19 at bay.
Saratoga Springs officials hope that putting up new sandwich-board reminder signs around downtown will increase compliance with the state’s rule to wear masks in public — an acknowledged problem in the city’s downtown scene, especially at night.
The city’s restaurant and bar scene along Broadway and Caroline Street is one of the busiest in the region, especially during the summer tourism season. Although Saratoga Race Course is operating this year without fans, the streets still are filled with plenty of seasonal visitors, many of them coming from downstate or other urban areas more hard-hit by COVID-19.
“They’re coming from down south and they get here and they don’t see everyone in a mask and so they don’t think it’s a requirement, and also think we’re really healthy so they don’t need to wear one,” said city Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton, who has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the issue.
An amendment to the state Public Health Law earlier this month put private businesses on notice they must enforce Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mask order or they could face steep fines. But there is no enforcement equivalent for people letting their chins and noses show on public sidewalks, short of the city adopting its own local law that city code officials could then enforce.
The idea of a local law was briefly discussed at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, but not pursued. Still, city leaders acknowledge it’s enough of a problem that some local residents are scared to come downtown.
“It continues to be a problem. The problem has grown and grown, and we hear from a lot of people who are either uncomfortable leaving their home here or who are uncomfortable coming to visit here because they are afraid they are not going to be safe and healthy if they go and visit our downtown, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores,” Dalton said.
Dalton wants to find a way to enforce the rule but not be punitive toward individuals, while emphasizing the city’s interest in keeping everyone in the city safe from spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID.
“I think we need to let them know what the expectation is,” she said.
Earlier in Tuesday’s City Council meeting, a young man had appeared during the public comment period to complain confrontationally that being forced to wear a mask was “un-American.” He was asked to leave the meeting because he was not wearing his mask properly.
Dalton said restaurant owners are seeing customers who have eaten or had a couple of drinks not wearing their masks when they get up from their tables, and asking them to don the masks “can become confrontation” — echoing comments last week by Stewarts’ Shops President Gary Dake, whose convenience store chain hardened its “no mask, no service” stance in response to the threat of fines against the company due to the Public Health Law amendment.
City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said she’s witnessed violations of mask and social distancing rules downtown herself. “It’s track season and people are getting comfortable, and there’s lots of people at restaurants and bars. I have witnessed it, people recognize each other and getting up without their masks on and giving each other hugs,” she said. “That gives me great concern.”
Madigan said the city should also be putting simple messages about mask-wearing on social media, which she said has been effective elsewhere.
“I work right on Broadway, and I would say maybe one-third of the people are wearing masks,” said Accounts Commissioner John Franck. “Most of the people I see wearing them are locals that I know.”
Franck said simply putting up some signs to remind people to wear masks will increase compliance, at a small expense that is probably reimbursable from federal COVID-19 response funds.
So far, the city has not been writing tickets to people not wearing masks, but Dalton said both city police and code enforcement personnel are working downtown at night to give people reminders to wear their masks and see that restaurants are living by their 50-percent capacity limitations.