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Lawmakers Get Tough with Mask Requirements: Legislative Watch

New Jersey and Pennsylvania would make the refusal to wear a mask a crime. It’s a sign that consensus regarding the value of mask wearing has grown, but states are still unsure on both guidelines and penalties.

Tourists are wearing masks on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Aug. 28, 2020. (DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
Whatever pictures of holiday beach crowds or political rallies might suggest, most Americans aren't opposed to wearing masks. A Pew survey in late August found that 85 percent of all adults said they had worn a face covering or mask in public “all or most of the time” in the past month, up from 65 percent in June. 

Thirty-four states have made it mandatory to wear masks in public. Even so, there is still enough confusion and controversy around the subject to prompt violent confrontations at times. This could be a manifestation of “American individualism,” but it’s also true that there have been inconsistencies in messaging.

In March, health officials told Americans they shouldn’t wear face masks, because most people did not know how to use them correctly and because the supplies then available were needed by health-care workers. The surgeon general asked the public to stop buying masks for both reasons, tweeting that they were “NOT effective.”

In April, the president announced that the CDC recommended that Americans wear cloth face coverings in public spaces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He underscored that this was not mandatory and that he did not plan to wear one himself. Around this time, the World Health Organization advised that healthy persons only needed masks if they were caring for a person with COVID-19. (This guidance has since been updated.)

Scientific consensus regarding the importance of masks in containing COVID-19 has grown since the early days of the pandemic, based on findings of new research. A study published in the journal Health Affairs estimated that state mask mandates averted more than 200,000 cases between March 31 and May 22 alone.

Efforts are still ongoing to fine tune guidelines. Here are some examples of state legislative proposals introduced since August.

Missouri HR6640 would amend House rules to require that all members, staff and guests wear masks while in the capitol building, with the exception of those with disabilities that make mask wearing harmful or difficult. It references CDC guidelines and notes that the pandemic has created “the need for changes to our normal way of living.”

S2814, a New Jersey bill, would make it a trespass offense during the current public health emergency to enter a store or retail business without a mask if signage is posted that clearly requires masks for entrance. This would be considered to be a petty disorderly persons offense punishable by a fine of up to $500, up to 30 days in prison, or both. 

Minnesota HF10 would require all persons in the state to wear a facial covering in indoor public spaces as well as outdoor public spaces where it is not possible to maintain social distancing of 6 feet. It gives businesses the right to refuse service to persons without face coverings. The requirement would not apply to children under 8 and those with medical exemptions.  

SB1287 in Pennsylvania would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to willfully fail to wear a mask or face covering as required by the governor’s public health emergency declaration. The offense would be reckless endangerment, conduct that could place another “in danger of death or serious bodily injury.”

Another Pennsylvania bill, SB1243, reflects a different perspective. It would amend the Public School Code to state that no school district will be required to enforce the wearing of face coverings on school grounds under the current disaster emergency or “any other” declaration of  disaster emergency. HR964 proposes to censure a member of the state’s House of Representatives for, among other things, objection to the “science, medicine and public health expertise” underlying mask order from the governor and secretary of health.

Virginia HR581 recognizes Hopes and Seams, founded by two high-school students, for donating thousands of masks to health-care workers and first responders, and to at-risk groups such as the elderly and members of the Navajo Nation. 


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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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