Connecticut's governor will sign an executive order Tuesday designed to hit people where it hurts -- in the wallet -- if they endanger the public by refusing to wear masks to help curb the spread of Covid-19.
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate the wearing of masks in public, but Gov. Ned Lamont’s order makes Connecticut one of the few states that will issue fines to those who don't comply. Starting midnight Thursday, residents could be fined $100 if they’re caught violating the mask mandate.
Prior to Lamont’s order, the only option Connecticut police had to penalize those who ignored the mask mandate was to charge them with a misdemeanor, which was deemed overly punitive, the state’s chief operating officer, Josh Geballe, told the Hartford Courant.
“There wasn’t really much that was being done, because many people viewed [a misdemeanor charge] as excessively harsh for failing to wear a mask if you couldn’t socially distance,” Geballe said. “So they asked for this new tool, an infraction that was a bit of a step-down enforcement.”
In addition to providing law enforcement with “a new tool,” Lamont’s order also imposes statewide uniformity on how mask mandates will be enforced, Geballe added.
Towns like Simsbury, for example, had already enacted a $250 fine for violations of mask or physical distancing orders.
“It’s come up over and over again, to the point where we felt it was an appropriate thing to do,” Geballe said.
Lamont’s executive order also imposes a $250 fine for attending indoor events with more than 25 people or large outdoor gatherings with more than 100 people. And people who organize these unsanctioned events are subject to a $500 fine.
Will imposing these hefty fines for not wearing masks actually work?
Brian Higgins, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police chief of Bergen County, New Jersey, said he’s not so sure.
“People still don’t stop speeding because there’s fines, people still don’t stop at stop signs because there’s fines,” Higgins told NBC News. “I think it will have some impact but I think it will still be hard to enforce.
“Here’s the problem,” he said. “Technically, you’re only supposed to wear masks if you’re not able to socially distance. So, it becomes a judgment call for whoever is doing the enforcing. Also, there’s this moving scale. People are seeing masks being enforced in one place and not the other.”
The result is widespread confusion over when and where to wear a mask that makes some people angry and less cooperative.
“I see the extremes all the time,” Higgins said. “I see people walking all alone down a wooded path wearing masks. I see those people who are hellbent on not wearing masks walking in crowds. In my house, the rules are the rules and we follow the rules.”
Polly Price, a professor of law and public health at Emory University in Atlanta, said fines could be effective for some people “on the same theory that speeding tickets discourage speeding and traffic fines encourage seat belt usage and other traffic safety issues.”
“So, it may be that just the possibility of a fine may nudge more people to comply than would otherwise,” she said.
But Price said she was dubious about whether handing out fines was “a good use of police time.” She said what might be more effective is adapting the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” concept currently in place for many stores and other indoor venues to include masks.
“But store owners need to be willing to confront noncompliant customers, and the local police force willing to answer ‘trespass’ and disturbance calls,” she said.
Other jurisdictions outside of Connecticut have also either proposed or imposed fines on people flouting mask mandates.
For example, while California does not have a statewide penalty for not wearing a mask in public, some local governments have imposed their own fines. And in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s emergency rule that would fine businesses up to $2,500 for not enforcing mandatory mask rules survived a challenge by Republicans in the state Legislature.
Connecticut was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic when it was concentrated in the Northeast and has reported 4,485 deaths out of 54,895 confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to the latest NBC News figures.
Meanwhile, New York City commuters who refuse to wear masks on the subway, buses and other trains now face a $50 fine.
While Connecticut was able to flatten the curve, the state’s positivity rate has climbed over 1 percent again to 1.2 percent in recent days as more colleges and schools reopened, a fact that Lamont said figured in his decision to sign the new executive order.
But in general, Lamont said Monday, “I think the numbers are still trending in the right direction.”
The same could not be said elsewhere as the United States continued to report thousands of more cases and some 800 additional deaths every day, while the total number of fatalities from the pandemic climbs closer to 200,000.
In the seven months since President Donald Trump privately told reporter Bob Woodward that the coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” the U.S. continued to lead the world with 195,866 deaths and over 6.5 million confirmed cases, the NBC News figures showed Tuesday.
Trump has denied lying about the severity of the pandemic to the American public, but right now the U.S. accounts for over a fifth of the world’s 929,444 fatalities and a fifth of the more than 29.3 million cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.
Most of the new deaths and cases continue to be generated in the Southern and the Sun Belt states that started reopening in May at Trump’s urging just as the worst of the pandemic was about to hit. Also seeing an increase in cases of late are sparsely-populated Midwestern states like South Dakota, which last month played host to a raucous motorcycle rally in the town of Sturgis where there was almost no physical distancing or the wearing of masks by the 400,000 or so people who took part in the 10-day festival.
In other coronavirus news:
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Most of the children and teenagers who have died of Covid-19 have been Black, Hispanic or suffering from underlying conditions, the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report. The researchers reached their conclusion after taking a closer look at the cases of 121 children and adolescents who died from the coronavirus from Feb. 12 through July 31. Obesity and asthma were the most common underlying condition, they found. And 75 of the patients were Hispanic, Black and American Indian/Alaska Native. Dr. Rishi Desai, who did not take part in the report but is a former CDC infectious disease officer, said it did not surprise him most of the fatalities were minority children and teens. "What was slightly surprising was that it wasn't even close," he told NBC News. "The amount of difference was striking."