Police focus on education in enforcement of mandatory mask order

  • Jaspal Singh, an employee at Pop’s Package store in Northampton, waits on Ashley Johns, April 15. Both of them are required to wear masks as part of a new order from the Northampton Public Health Department. Local police are now charged with enforcing Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide order requiring that masks be worn in public place any time social distancing cannot be maintained. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 5/10/2020 6:50:49 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Police departments across the area are focusing on education in their enforcement of Gov. Charlie Baker’s order mandating face coverings in public due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baker’s order requires that any person out in a place open to the public, whether indoors or outdoors, and unable to maintain a social distance of six feet or more must wear a mask or cloth face covering to help curb the spread of the infectious disease. Those who violate the order can be fined up to $300.

Exceptions to the order, which went into effect May 6, include children age 2 and under and those who have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks or cloth face coverings. The order remains in effect until it’s rescinded or the state of emergency is lifted.

“Our goal is to educate; our goal is to keep people safe,” said Northampton Police Capt. Robert Powers. “Our goal is not to fine them; our goal is not to arrest anybody.”

Powers’ emphasis on teaching citizens about the governor’s order instead of resorting to fines is shared by other police departments in the area, including those in Easthampton and Hadley.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker has also issued orders closing nonessential businesses and prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people, among other rules. Cities and towns have also issued their own orders, which can be stricter. Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said a fine up to $300 is applicable for violations of the governor’s orders, including face coverings, large gatherings and workplace violations.

“We are the enforcers for the Board of Health,” Powers said. “We have been using education up until now to enforce all of the rules regarding the pandemic.”

Police will first give a warning to someone failing to follow the mask order to educate them about the law, Powers said, but a second or subsequent offense could bring up to a $300 fine. The city also reserves the right to file criminal charges or seek an injunction for a second or subsequent offense, Powers said. 

Police are aware that some people may not have masks, Powers said, and are working to find ways to provide face coverings for those in need. Powers stressed that fines are not the desired outcome of enforcement of any of the current orders and will be used on a situational basis.

Two officers had been assigned to do compliance checks on businesses and followed up on complaints made to the Board of Health, he said. Citizens and businesses have been cooperative in following all of the health orders issued during the pandemic, Powers said. 

“We have not had anyone uncooperative where we needed to enforce via fine,” Powers said.

In Easthampton, the Board of Health voted Tuesday to officially name all city police officers agents of the board and thus able to enforce any order from the governor related to COVID-19 that’s given to the board to enforce, including mask-wearing. The appointments are for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency, or when they are rescinded by the Board of Health, whichever comes first. 

Police in Easthampton had already been able to enforce city orders related to COVID-19 because Bri Eichstaedt, the city’s health agent, had listed them as enforcing agents. Police Chief Robert Alberti said, however, that before the vote the department still called Eichstaedt in to write the violations. 

“We now have the ability and authority to write public health violations,” Alberti said.

Eichstaedt said enforcing the mask order is really about education, something Alberti also echoed. Eichstaedt described ticketing as “a last resort.” Police Sgt. Dennis Scribner said that fine structures during the pandemic have been a warning, then a $150 fine followed by a $300 citation.

Since the governor’s order went into effect Wednesday, Eichstaedt said that only one business, and no individuals, have been warned under it. 

“We don’t want to be out there writing tickets to everybody,” Alberti said.

Alberti said officers have been going around the city handing out masks over the past few weekends. There are some circumstances where disobeying the order could result in criminal charges, Alberti said, though he said he doesn’t anticipate this.

Eichstaedt said she received 29 COVID-19 related complaints in the month of April.

Hadley Police Lt. Mitchell Kuc said his department is also taking an “education first” standpoint in enforcing the governor’s orders, using enforcement only when necessary. Kuc said the police department is working with the town’s Board of Health and can also act in that capacity to issue fines, which are first a warning and then up to $300 for a second or subsequent offense.

As in Northampton and Easthampton, Kuc said officers are making sure to have extra masks in cruisers for people without them. Kuc said the department has received very few complaints about businesses letting people congregate inside, which they referred to the Board of Health. As far as the mask order goes, Kuc said Friday the department has yet to hear of any complaints around violations.

“I think the community is taking the governor’s orders seriously,” Kuc said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.
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