Executive orders mandating masks in public 'lack teeth,' police experts say

The latest attempt to prod more Americans into wearing masks came as 58,238 new cases of COVID-19 were reported.
Image: People wear protective face masks outside at a shopping plaza in Edgewater, New Jersey
People wear protective face masks outside at a shopping plaza in Edgewater, N.J., on July 8, 2020.Mike Segar / Reuters

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By Nigel Chiwaya and Corky Siemaszko

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.”

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear became the latest lawmaker to mandate masks Thursday. He said the order, which goes into effect Friday and is good for 30 days, will be enforced by local health departments and "others."

"It's no longer voluntary, it's mandatory," he said at a press conference. "And I'm willing to take whatever criticism comes with that."

Asked about penalties, Beshear answered, "Start with a warning, chronic refusal can lead to a fine."

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.

In related developments:

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he hopes there will be a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021. "There are a number of candidates that are in various stages of development," Fauci said at a live event sponsored by The Hill.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hedged on whether he would attend the GOP convention next month in Florida. "We'll have to wait and see how things look in late August to determine whether or not you can safely convene that many people," he said. Earlier this week, McConnell said he was definitely going, this after five other GOP senators said they would pass this year. There were 9,989 news cases reported in Florida on Wednesday, bringing the total number up to 232,718 and 4,110 deaths, NBC News figures show.
  • Some 1.3 million people filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week, the Department of Labor reported. It was the 14th straight week of declines since the pandemic demolished the thriving economy President Donald Trump inherited from his predecessor.

  • While Trump has been pushing hard for public schools to reopen in the fall, the Archdiocese of New York City announced that 20 Catholic schools will be closed and three others will merge. “Children are always the most innocent victims of any crisis, and this COVID-19 pandemic is no exception,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in statement.
  • The Florida health department reported than an 11-year-old girl died of the coronavirus. She is the second 11-year-old to die this week in Florida of a virus that has largely preyed on the elderly. The sad report came on the same day that Trump, speaking before signing an executive order creating the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, dismissed concerns about reopening schools as "political nonsense." "Our strategy focuses on sheltering the most vulnerable, including older Americans and nursing home residents, while allowing those at lower risk such as young— children in many cases, the immune system is so powerful, so strong— but the young and the healthy to safely return to work and to school," he said.

Back in New Jersey, 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.

Mask-wearing has become a deeply politicized issue with many Trump supporters following his example and refusing to wear them in public. Hundreds of new cases in Oklahoma have been linked to Trump's rally last month in Tulsa.

Various pop culture figures, including Bill Nye "The Science Guy," have stepped in and tried to educate the public on the necessity of wearing them.

And, so far, clashes over masks in the U.S. have not resulted in the kind of deadly violence that reportedly happened in Nigeria. There, on Tuesday, a 27-year-old man who refused to wear a mask was shot dead by a police inspector, the nation's most widely-read newspaper, Punch, reported.