SAN FRANCISCO — California's governor on Thursday waded into the growing national divide over face masks, which often are cast as either a common courtesy to stem the spread of coronavirus or an infringement on personal freedom.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that citizens now must cover their mouths and nose in most indoor settings and outdoors when social distancing isn't possible. Among those exempt: children, the hearing impaired and those with medical conditions.
No enforcement guidelines were mentioned in the statement, but California Department of Public Health officials said the mask order carried the same weight as any other state orders with violations resulting in possible financial and other penalties.
“Science shows that face coverings and masks work,” Newsom said in a statement. “They are critical to keeping those who are around you safe, keeping businesses open and restarting our economy.”
Masks, whether surgery-quality N95s or the handmade variety, are considered a reliable defensive measure against the spread of coronavirus as they prevent those infected from spreading the virus through droplets exiting their mouth and nose.
States including Michigan, New York, Maine, Delaware and Maryland already have statewide mask orders in place. In other states, including Florida and North Carolina, mask directives have been met with resistance ranging from protests to mask-burning events.
Mask matters have been rendered political after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who have been pushing for a fast restart of the U.S. economy, refused to wear masks in a number of public settings.
And mask guidelines also have been downright confusing after the World Health Organizations and other officials repeatedly changed their opinions in recent weeks on the efficacy of masks in preventing infection.
In California, local governments had been in charge of face mask guidelines, which has led to tense confrontations particularly in Southern California. Orange County's public health officer, Nichole Quick, resigned last week after she faced threats over her mask order. Los Angeles County requires people to wear masks whenever they are outside their homes, as do San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.
Not just Florida: Florida is one of 22 states seeing a rise in cases right now.
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Like many states across the nation, California has been reopening at a steady pace as officials try and mitigate the unprecedented economic fallout of the global pandemic.
But one byproduct of the push are growing coronavirus cases in states that include Florida, Arizona and California, where more than 3,400 people were in the hospital as of Wednesday, the most patients hospitalized since April.
For many health professionals, masks are a critical tool in restarting the economy safely and should not be imbued with political significance.
"If we want to keep opening up we have to take pragmatic steps to do that, and masks and social distancing are critical components to doing that," says Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chairman of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
Bibbins-Domingo says that masks are increasingly important as scientific evidence mounts showing that coronavirus can spread by asymptomatic carriers. She acknowledges that for some Americans, mask-related mandates can chafe.
"Public health has always been challenged by the fact that some cast these matters as threatening individual liberties, so in this case orders don't sound good," she says. "But people do need to be realistic. We're in the middle of a pandemic and not close to the end, we'll be co-existing with it for at least 18 months. So measures need to be taken."
Some polls suggest there is less of a public divide on the topic of masks than some widely reported incidents suggest.
A recent survey survey from Public Agenda, USA TODAY and Ipsos Hidden Common Ground of about 1,000 people found that 77 percent of the respondents—as well as a majority of each political party—support wearing masks in public. A similar majority supported measures such as self-quarantining if exposed to the virus and having stores and restaurants require social distancing.
Newsom's order effectively makes wearing a mask the law of the land in the Golden State. But the lack of clarity on how such measures are to be enforced — whether there will be fines or other penalties — concerns some lawmakers.
"Our police are already fielding around 20 calls a day related to masks, so I can see that doubling or quadrupling, even if that's not really what we want them dealing with," says Dan Wright, vice mayor of Stockton, California, an inland city of 310,000.
Earlier this month, Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs, a Democrat, sought an emergency ordinance mandating mask wearing. But his six city council members, which included two Democrats including Wright and four Republicans, all voted no.
"Our numbers are spiking here in the county, and we all agree that masks are a good idea," says Wright. "But there has to be more of a willing partnership among citizens in order to enforce it. After all, plenty of stores have signs saying 'No shoes, no shirt, no service,' and no one is up in arms about that rule."
But with some citizens becoming increasingly vocal about their desire not to wear masks, often crowding bars and beaches around the country in a bid to reclaim pre-pandemic lives, mask orders are the only way to get compliance, says Luis Aleman, spokesperson for the Orange County Labor Federation, which represents 250,000 workers in a range of service and public sector jobs.
"Orange County needs to have a consistent public policy platform on these matters, you can't just outsource public policy to an angry mob," says Aleman, who earlier this week joined other union leaders at county headquarters to demand mask orders. His group was met with maskless counter-protesters chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, these masks have got to go."
Those chants are mild compared to some incidents that have flared around the country.
In April, police in Philadelphia dragged a man off a bus for not wearing a mask. In early May, an employee was shot in the head and killed at a Michigan Family Dollar store in Flint after he asked a woman to put on a mask.
In recent days, North Carolina's governor and mayor are looking into a mask mandate, news that caused some locals to counterpunch with a call for an upcoming "Burn Your Mask Challenge."
Ashely Smith, organizer of the event and leader of a group called ReOpenNC, wrote on Facebook that we’re a group against mandatory anything, and we’re for personal liberty and the Constitution and personal freedom."
To date, the coronavirus has sickened nearly 8.5 million people worldwide, and killed more than 450,000, according to statistics kept by Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center. The U.S. has an increasingly large share of those numbers, with 2.1 million cases and 118,000 deaths.
Contributing: Associated Press