Lawmakers across the country are issuing executive orders mandating that masks be worn in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some carry threats of fines and even jail time for those who don’t.
What these orders appear to lack, however, is “teeth,” police experts say.
“I don’t know how you enforce this,” Brian Higgins, a former chief of the Bergen County (N.J.) Police, told NBC News on Thursday, a day after his state’s governor issued a mask mandate aimed at the “knuckleheads” who still refuse to wear them.
“This reads like it was thrown together in a hurry,” Higgins, who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said of Gov. Phil Murphy’s order. “There’s no teeth to this.”
In Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine has ordered that masks be worn in public in half a dozen counties that have seen the biggest jump in new COVID-19 cases, it’s unlikely anybody is going to be arrested if they don’t.
“We’re not going to solely arrest somebody because of a mask issue,” Chief Deputy Jim Gilbert of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office told The Columbus Dispatch. “But we’re going to ask for compliance verbally. We’re going to do all that we can do to de-escalate the situation and hopefully just educate the person and send them on their way (and) possibly provide them with a mask that they can take with them.”
The latest attempt to prod more Americans into wearing masks came as 58,238 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Wednesday, slightly lower than Tuesday’s record of 61,260 new coronavirus cases, figures compiled by NBC News showed.
As of Thursday, the death toll in the U.S. from COVID-19 was 133,409 and there were 3,083,205 cases reported, according to NBC News’ figures.
While violating Murphy’s mandate is technically a disorderly persons violation which could result in a $1,000 fine, up to six months in jail or both, his executive order does not spell out whether police will be issuing tickets or arresting people on the spot.
In a “Morning Joe” interview on Wednesday, Murphy was equally vague about the enforcement, saying “you’re gonna at least get a warning, if not something stronger.”
When NBC News reached out to Murphy’s office on Thursday for a further explanation, an aide referred a reporter to the earlier statement by the governor’s spokesman Alyana Alfaro-Post that “local law enforcement will monitor compliance, particularly in crowded situations.”
That’s unlikely, said Higgins.
“I am part of the chiefs association and when I touch base with them what I hear is ‘I don’t want my cops involved in this, I don’t want my cops enforcing social distancing and masks,’” he said. “They’ve got other things to worry about.”
Higgins also pointed to the section of Murphy’s order which notes that the state’s Director of Emergency Management has “the discretion to make additions, amendments, clarifications, exceptions, and exclusions to the terms of this Order.”
“That kind of defeats the purpose of an executive order,” said Higgins.