As America begins to reopen, many states and counties have face mask requirements in addition to social distancing and hand washing. Some even include an enforcement mechanism. But should not wearing a face mask in public make you a criminal?
Some places say yes.
In late April, Harris County, Texas became one of those localities when the county judge issued an executive order requiring all persons to wear face coverings, wash their hands before leaving and upon returning home, practice social distancing, and avoid touching their face in public.
The most concerning part of the order was that violating this mandate could have cost you $1,000. The punishment did not fit the crime and it made not wearing a face mask criminal activity.
Even though this order is no longer in play, the initial threat of criminalization should be a concern to everyone. Especially when police departments were weary of enforcing it. Houston Police Officers’ Union’s (HPOU) President issued a public letter voicing the concerns of officers in the HPOU, stating, “We do not have time to be pawns in Hidalgo’s game of attempting to control the actions of law abiding, tax paying individuals of our community.”
Tasking police officers, firefighters, and marshals with enforcing this order takes them away from actual emergencies. It also adds to the problems of an already down-trodden community.
As a result of government responses to the pandemic, the unemployment rate across the country has skyrocketed to over 40 million. In Texas, over 2 million people have filed for unemployment benefits. Unemployment does not just result in loss of income, it can also result in anxiety, alcohol or drug abuse, and the loss of lives. From the stress of providing basic needs to the fear of getting the virus, the mental health impact of this pandemic has been staggering.
Between the surge of unemployment and the rise of mental health concerns, a local executive order penalizing individuals for not wearing a mask exacerbates the stress of the 4.7 million Houstonians. With so many Texans living under the strain of extraordinary circumstances, how does the threat of $1,000 citation help their economic or mental health?
It may not even protect their physical health. Evolving health recommendations and conflicting studies show that it may not be necessary for everyone to wear a face mask. In fact, wearing face masks may actually be more harmful to your health due to overuse of a single mask, lack of cleaning, or improper disposal.
Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, acknowledged that wearing a face masks is a gesture of respect to others. He added, “I want to make it be a symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.”
Wearing a face mask has been encouraged by federal, state, and local officials and many individuals choose to do so. However, imposing an egregious fine for not wearing one is a misuse of the criminal justice system and a serious threat to the mental, physical, and economic stress of any individual.
Thankfully, Gov. Greg Abbott took action to prevent criminalizing forgetfulness. In a statement, Gov. Abbott said, “One thing that we don’t want to do — because people feel like their lives are being infringed upon due to no fault of their own — we don’t want to be putting people in jail because they refuse to wear face masks.”
Although Harris County’s order was amended rather quickly, its initial infringement on Texans needs to be addressed for the sake of Texans now and in the future. Local elected officials cannot be allowed to use the criminal justice system as a means to their own agenda.