October 18, 2021

Who are the mask police?

Enforcement lacks teeth, but officials say to wear them, anyway

When Bill Fortin went shopping last week at the Cortlandville Walmart, he was horrified at the number of people not wearing face masks in the store — about 20% of shoppers, he said.

As he entered, not one person in a group of six behind him was wearing a mask. Fortin said he was upset not only at these people, but also at Walmart employees, who he said made no comment as the unmasked group walked into the store.

“It just blew me away,” Fortin said.

But are Walmart employees supposed to act as mask police? If not, who is?

“Maintaining customer and associate safety remains our top priority,” wrote Rebecca Thomason, senior manager of corporate communications for Walmart, in an email. “We encourage customers to be especially mindful of one another during this unprecedented time and adhere to recommendations that we all use face coverings while in public spaces.”

Walmart has required all employees nationwide to wear provided face coverings since April 20. New York’s executive order went into effect April 17.

The ultimate answer on mask wearing is left up to individuals, said Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order, Helms points out, essentially “has no teeth” — something Cuomo himself has admitted.

There are no state penalties connected with the order, and local police, Helms said, have been directed to enforce it — not state police.

Instead, complaints about violations of Cuomo’s New York Pause executive orders are referred to local law enforcement officials such as Helms.

But Helms thinks if this is a state order, it should be enforced by state police.

“The governor just as easily could have sent these Pause complaints to the state police, but for some reason he neglected to do that,” Helms said. “And to me that says a lot.”

Helms said in the absence of any penalties, mask enforcement comes down to personal responsibility. New York residents have to learn to wear masks in public places in order to protect others, and no local police or store managers can force them to do so. All police can do is remind people to wear them. If people refuse to listen, there’s not much else police can do, but Helms thinks such people are in the minority.

“I think that people are trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Helms also thinks that face masks will be a standard feature of social life for the foreseeable future, so people should get used to them.

Cathy Feuerherm, the Cortland County public health director, said that residents should comply with the order to wear masks in public places when social distancing is not possible.

“As a law-abiding citizen, I feel we should comply!” she wrote in an email. “That said, a mask is only protective when used correctly, covering nose and mouth. Once wet or soiled they need to be replaced and a new one donned. Cloth masks need to be laundered frequently. Masks can give us a false sense of security. Distancing and frequent handwashing works!”