A number of U.S. states,1 along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,2 are now recommending that Americans wear face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A judge in Harris County, Texas, however, took this recommendation a step further, ordering residents to wear face masks in public for 30 days or be faced with a fine or jail time.3
Judge Lina Hidalgo made the announcement April 22, 2020 — ironically, the same day that plans were released to close a temporary hospital intended to treat COVID-19 patients “because it wasn’t needed.”4
“These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger — and rightfully so,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote in a Twitter message.5 Patrick was among those who pushed back against Hidalgo’s order, calling it an overreach driven by “hypocrisy and hysteria.” In a statement, Patrick wrote:6
“On the same day Harris County Commissioner’s Court plans to close the $60 million-dollar pop-up hospital at NRG Park, because it wasn’t needed, Judge Lina Hidalgo orders anyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask in public. Her abuse of the use of executive orders is the ultimate government overreach.”
Backlash Over ‘Draconian’ Mask Order
Under Hidalgo’s initial order, residents over 10 years old faced a fine of $1,000 and 180 days in jail if they failed to wear a face covering in public at all times except while drinking, eating or exercising. A day later, violating the mask order was said to be punishable only by the fine, but not jail time.7
Even a Houston-based police officers’ union was appalled by the “draconian measures” Hidalgo was imposing and contacted the Attorney General’s office to find out whether the order was legal.
Police also tweeted that, while they agreed everyone should wear a mask while in public, asking police officers to enforce it would backfire, damaging their relationship with the community and taking officers away from violent crimes:8
“Houston Police Officers are already stretched entirely too thin during the Covid19 pandemic. Violent crime is up this year (murders up by 35%), property crime is up (burglaries by nearly 30%) … 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.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw also spoke out against the move, stating that while guidelines for wearing masks in confined spaces should be emphatically promoted, “commonsense guidelines” should not lead to “unjust tyranny.”9
In the end, five days after Hidalgo issued her edict, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott overruled her, saying his authority supersedes hers and that no one was going to be penalized anywhere in Texas for not wearing a mask:10
“… local officials cannot impose penalties on residents who violate rules about wearing masks in public … We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask … However, it’s not a mandate. And we make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine. My executive order, it supersedes local orders, with regard to any type of fine or penalty for anyone not wearing a mask.”
Judge Sued Over ‘Unconstitutional’ Mask Order
Even before the governor superseded her ruling, Hidalgo’s mask order was facing legal challenges, including a court petition by Dr. Steven Hotze, which stated, “If Judge Hidalgo’s Order is not declared unconstitutional and void, once this virus passes, the rights we are afforded under the Texas Constitution will forever be damaged.”11
“The heavy hand of local government will fine individuals who refuse to wear a mask, fail to wash their hands, get within 6 feet of another, or inadvertently touch their face,” the petition continued.12
The suit — which Hotze withdrew13 after the governor’s ruling — alleged that Hidalgo’s order exceeded her authority by implementing orders that are more restrictive than those put forth by the state’s governor.
It also stated that Hidalgo’s powers are limited to those outlined by the Disaster Act, which does not include a threat of fines for not wearing masks, washing hands or staying 6 feet away from others.14 Besides Hotze, other citizens voiced their opposition with a public protest in Harris County — where more than 4 million people reside.
In the case of Hidalgo’s mask order being punishable by a fine, the backlash stemmed not so much from the request to wear masks in public, but by the order making it a crime not to do so. This isn’t unique to Harris County, Texas, though.
Many other countries, states and counties have similar measures in place, including Humboldt County, California, where anyone who violates the order to wear face coverings in public could be fined $50 to $1,000 and/or face 90 days in jail for each day the offense occurred.15 In Salem, Massachusetts, you can also be fined for not wearing a mask in public, including the common areas inside an apartment building.16
In Hawaii, customers and employees at essential businesses are required to wear cloth face coverings, in addition to staying 6 feet away from others. Those who violate the rules could be fined up to $5,000 or face a year in prison — or both,17 according to Gov. David Ige’s order.18 In other states, such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, residents may be denied entry to essential businesses if they refuse to wear a mask.
And, in Germany, masks are required in public spaces as business closures have been loosened, with fines of €15 ($16) to €5,000 ($5,415) for violations, depending on the state.19
Are Masks Useful for Reducing COVID-19 Risk?
In many countries that have implemented widespread use of masks in public, COVID-19 cases have remained under control. The U.S. lagged behind in this regard, and as recently as February 29, 2020, as COVID-19 cases accelerated, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted a message stating, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!”20
Adams went on to say that masks are “not effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them when caring for patients, it puts them and communities at risk” — statements that blatantly contradict one another.
Admittedly, even public health leaders are not in agreement as to whether wearing masks is useful. April 6, 2020, the World Health Organization issued its recommendations, saying:21
”There is limited evidence that wearing a medical mask by healthy individuals in the households or among contacts of a sick patient, or among attendees of mass gatherings may be beneficial as a preventive measure.
However, there is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19. Medical masks should be reserved for health care workers.”
Persons with symptoms should “wear a mask, self-isolate and seek medical advice as soon as they feel unwell,” the guidelines continue. On the other hand, the same week, the CDC recommended all Americans wear masks whenever they are in public22,23 — and research suggests doing so may help reduce virus transmission.
In 2012, researchers from the University of Michigan studied whether the use of face masks and hand hygiene reduced rates of influenza and influenza-like illness in 1,178 students living in university residence halls.24
The students were assigned to one of three groups: face mask and hand hygiene, face mask only or control group during the study. During Weeks 3 to 6 of the study, a 75% reduction in influenza-like illness was noted among the students using hand hygiene and wearing masks in residence halls.25
Further, researchers with Cambridge University tested common household materials for their effectiveness as masks by exposing them to different sized particles. Surgical masks were most effective, but all of the materials, ranging from a dish towel to a cotton T-shirt to a scarf, offered some protection even against very small bacteriophages that are even smaller than coronavirus.26
The study, which was published in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, concluded that even homemade masks are better than no protection at all.27 Masks can also help to lower the “dose” of virus you receive if you come in contact with an infected person.
Virologist Peter Kolchinsky tweeted that the public should know that dose matters with COVID-19 exposure. “Masks can help anyone,” he wrote, “reducing amount of virus released (even by breathing) or taken in,” adding that your immune system is more effective if the infection starts with a low dose.28
The Czech Republic Promotes Mask Order Using Positivity
In The Czech Republic, wearing masks in public has been required for the whole country since March 18, 2020 — including for nudists, who now have to cover their faces with a mask. While citizens may face a fine for violating the order, a “reprimand” or warning may be issued instead.29
It’s interesting to note that the Czech Republic mask movement was kicked off by social media influencer Petr Ludwig, who made a video about the importance of wearing masks.30 He pointed out that hospitals had reached out on social media asking for homemade masks to fill in gaps of mask shortages, and people responded by not only making masks for health care workers, but also for the public.
“Mask trees” emerged, on which people would hang homemade masks in public places where anyone in need could pick one up. They were made with bright colors and patterns, distinguishing them from the surgical masks being prioritized to health care workers. Meanwhile, social media and celebrities got involved, urging people to share the information, take a selfie wearing a mask and use the hashtag #masks4all.
The movement quickly spread, Ludwig said, and in The Czech Republic the motto for wearing masks centers on kindness: “Your mask protects me, my mask protects you.” Now, if you’re not wearing a mask in public, you’re considered to be anti-social and putting others at risk.
In the U.S., however, many are concerned that mask wearing may be the first of many new government “guidelines” turned into mandates punishable by fines or jail time — a trend being seen across the globe.
First Mandatory Vaccine Law for Coronavirus Passed
In Denmark, an emergency coronavirus law unanimously passed, giving the government an unprecedented level of power that will remain in force until March 2021. Speaking with news outlet The Local, Jens Elo Rytter, a law professor at Copenhagen University, called the legislation the “most extreme since the Second World War.”31
Under the new measures, Danish citizens will be required to comply with orders from public health authorities or face punishments and prosecution. The law gives the Ministry of Health power to force vaccination, for instance, as well as requires citizens to be tested for COVID-19 and prohibits those who don’t comply from accessing public transportation, supermarkets, hospitals, nursing homes and shops.
A measure to allow police to enter private homes without a court order if a COVID-19 infection is suspected was dropped due to opposition. In passing what is now the first mandatory vaccine law for COVID-19, Denmark’s parliament is said to have rushed through its passage, and only 95 of 179 Danish MPs were present for the vote.32
At least 70 COVID-19 vaccines are under development,33 each of them likely attempting to be fast-tracked to the market.34 Under normal circumstances, a vaccine may take five to 10 years to be developed, and pushing rapid progress comes with significant safety concerns.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the construction of factories to produce seven vaccine candidates,35 with plans for the winning vaccine to be produced en masse, to vaccinate the entire world’s population.