Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced New Mexico would begin giving $100 fines to those who violate its face covering mandate for public settings, at least two things were clear:
Enforcement of the more aggressive approach will be tricky and the governor’s decision had not slowed the spread of debate.
While some business owners welcomed the governor’s announcement that those who violate the mask mandate can be given $100 fines, others suggested it could hurt their sales.
And at least one county sheriff said Thursday he does not plan on issuing citations or fines to those who don’t wear masks in public.
“I will not be enforcing that – I’ve got other things to be doing than dealing with masks,” Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace told the Journal.
He also accused Lujan Grisham of overreaching, and said the face covering mandate could spark confrontations in shops and other types of businesses.
New Mexico has had a face mask mandate in place since mid-May, when Lujan Grisham’s administration revised an emergency public health order to include the requirement.
But until Wednesday the mask mandate had been largely voluntary, with the governor expressing hope that “positive peer pressure” would be used to encourage mask wearing in public settings.
George Gundrey, who owns Tomasita’s restaurants in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and Atrisco Cafe & Bar in Albuquerque, said he thinks the state’s more aggressive stance toward mask-wearing will actually take a little heat off his staff.
“For that small minority that are kind of jerks about it, it’s been really difficult for restaurants and for the employees to say, ‘I’m sorry, we just can’t let you in,'” Gundrey said Thursday. “In a sense, having it be a more stringent fine kind of helps us. … It kind of puts it on (the governor) a little bit.”
But Los Ranchos Gun Shop owner Mark Abramson said placing the onus on businesses to enforce masks puts his staff in an awkward position.
“My employees have no issue at all wearing them,” he said. “The challenge is in demanding that everyone follow a certain set of behaviors. … People in general don’t like being told what to do.”
During a Thursday interview at his shop, Abramson paused the conversation for a moment to turn away a man who arrived without a mask.
“We just lost a sale,” he said, returning to the phone. “He was nice about it. But he doesn’t have a mask.”
Masks curb spread
Numerous studies have shown that wearing masks can curb the spread of coronavirus by blocking saliva droplets from traveling from one person to another.
While most research focuses on how masks protect those around an individual wearing one, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said during Wednesday’s news conference there is also evidence that face masks can protect the person wearing them.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise across New Mexico and 500 deaths due to the disease as of Wednesday, Lujan Grisham decided to step up the state’s enforcement on non-mask wearers as part of a revised public health order that runs through July 15.
“We tried other avenues first, but New Mexicans are still failing to grasp the critical importance of wearing a face mask when in public, as they are required to do,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Thursday.
She also said that State Police and other law enforcement agencies across New Mexico are expected to enforce mandatory public health requirements that will protect New Mexicans.
However, an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman indicated Thursday that issuing fines to non-mask wearers will not necessarily be a routine response.
“Our officers will continue to focus on educating the public and helping people understanding the importance of wearing face coverings, as well as following all of the governor’s public health directives,” APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.
“When possible, officers will take additional steps, such as written warnings, to ensure compliance,” he added.
Under the revised New Mexico public health order that took effect Wednesday, there are certain exceptions to the face covering requirement, including eating, drinking and exercising.
Businesses must also require employees and customers to wear masks or face fines.
Wearing masks while driving or riding in a car is not required, though Lujan Grisham suggested New Mexicans should do so – and said it’s required for traveling members of her security detail.
New Mexico’s state government distributed about 50,000 free masks, Sackett said, but recently halted the program because some individuals were apparently requesting masks be sent to other people as a prank or without their permission.
But masks and other protective equipment are still being provided by the state to local governments and health care facilities upon request.
Enforcing it difficult
Nationally, face coverings have been a contentious issue, with some Republican governors resisting face mask mandates and President Donald Trump reiterating this week that he did not think making face coverings mandatory across the nation was needed.
In other states, Democratic governors have required business employees and customers to wear masks but have found enforcing the mandates to be difficult.
But the number of states requiring face coverings has grown steadily in recent weeks, with Kansas and Pennsylvania among the latest states to adopt mask mandates.
Restaurant owner Gundrey, who said he finds it “really stupid” that some people won’t wear a mask out of principle, said fines against New Mexico businesses could be problematic, citing the hypothetical situation of a diner who forgets to wear a mask on their way to the bathroom after taking if off to eat.
“On the other hand, if I’m just … letting anybody walk into the restaurant without masks, and I’m just like, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ maybe there should be a fine,” Gundrey said.
For his part, Abramson said small businesses such as his gun shop have already been struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said he can’t afford to turn away customers, but he also can’t afford to risk a fine.
“To me, it’s most important that small businesses be allowed to do what we do for our guests,” he said.
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s $100 fine for violating the face mask requirement in public settings is higher than the state’s $25 penalty for not wearing a seat belt and the $50 penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana.