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States Starting to Crack Down on Coronavirus Rule Breakers (1)

July 9, 2020, 9:37 PMUpdated: July 10, 2020, 3:41 PM

They tried the proverbial carrot, but it wasn’t enough. Now, governors and city leaders who want people to stay six feet apart, wear masks, and change their business practices to slow the spread of the coronavirus are turning to the stick.

Faced with surging case numbers, defiant businesses, and quarantine-fatigued residents, some officials have increased enforcement efforts throughout the country.

A California county, for example, this week approved penalties of as much as $10,000 for businesses violating Covid-19 public health orders. In Arizona, liquor licenses at one gym chain were suspended for refusing to close as the governor directed.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) on Friday ordered that people who don’t wear a face covering be fined up to $500, even in parts of the state where most businesses have been allowed to reopen.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said July 1 that she wanted to enforce a mask mandate with peer pressure over punishment, but “that isn’t working.”

“So now we’re going to do enforcement and hold people accountable,” Lujan Grisham (D) said, announcing a $100 fine for violators.

Stools atop a table at a closed bar in Tucson, Ariz., per order of Gov. Doug Ducey (R) on June 29, 2020.
Photographer: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has focused on the moral responsibility to family and community to mask up. Along with a new order Tuesday extending mandatory masks in all indoor public places to be enforced by businesses came a new refrain: No mask, no service.

“If people are not wearing a mask, simply don’t ring up the sale,” Inslee said at a news conference. “This is a key to keep businesses open.”

Those who don’t comply can face civil penalties of up to $70,000 as a workplace violation. Violating a gubernatorial proclamation carries fines of up to $5,000 and nearly a year in jail, Inslee Press Secretary Mike Faulk said.

Enforcement Key

In Ohio, the Columbus City Council on Monday passed an ordinance adding penalties ranging from $25 for individuals to up to $1,000 for businesses for violating Mayor Andrew Ginther’s mask mandate. The move contradicts Ginther’s (D) initial stance that police wouldn’t fine violators, though he Tweeted support for the changes.

The cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood in California announced July 2 that they would strengthen mask mandates and add penalties ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars for violators.

Experts say the tougher approaches need to protect both public health and individual rights. Still, the government’s ability to enforce orders during an emergency is key, said Leila Barraza, associate professor of public health at the University of Arizona.

Voluntary compliance is ideal, but states must consider hospital capacity and the virus spread when considering stronger measures, Barraza said. Violations of closure orders without consequences can render the orders ineffective, she said.

“If there is no enforcement, people see that,” Barraza said.

Some fear fines and citations can do more harm than good. Violators may not understand why they need a mask, might not own one, and could struggle to pay a penalty, said Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

“There’s no evidence that fining someone $1,000 changes behavior,” she added.

Defiant Businesses

Businesses also face increased scrutiny by officials trying to mitigate coronavirus case surges as states reopen. Some leaders say businesses are getting lax or disregarding their orders entirely.

In Arizona, the gym chain Mountainside Fitness tweeted Tuesday that it would close after a county judge denied its request for a temporary restraining order against Gov. Doug Ducey’s (R) executive order. The Arizona Department of Liquor suspended at least three liquor licenses at Life Time Fitness for jeopardizing public health by refusing to close.

That gym ultimately closed its indoor fitness areas July 3 and is partnering with the state health department to develop fitness best practices. An open letter signed by dozens of physicians said they supported Ducey’s decision to close gyms and bars but wanted additional enforcement measures to give his order “real teeth.”

In Yolo County, Calif., a “small but increasing number of businesses” are disregarding coronavirus public health orders, according to an ordinance passed July 7 adding penalties of up to $10,000 for violations. Miami also added penalties July 1 to close businesses for 10 to 30 days if they don’t comply with Covid-19 rules.

‘Storm Cloud’

Inspectors visited thousands of California businesses and issued 52 citations over the July 4 weekend. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said the state needs to hold some of them accountable but doesn’t want to “penalize businesses that are struggling already.”

Oregon Liquor Control Commission inspectors visited 800 bars and restaurants last weekend to ensure social distancing and compliance with Gov. Kate Brown’s (D) face-covering requirement. They issued 74 verbal instructions to correct problems, though it has yet to be determined how many will result in fines.

In New York, where coronavirus cases and deaths remain comparatively low, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned July 1 of an approaching “storm cloud” with the number of cases increasing nationally. The state will look to supplement local enforcement of guidance and restrictions, including social distancing, Cuomo (D) said.

“If you have citizen compliance dropping, and you don’t have local governments enforcing— then you’re going to see the virus go up. Period,” he said.

(Updates with Michigan order in the 4th paragraph.)

With assistance from Paul Shukovsky, Alex Ebert, Keshia Clukey, Jennifer Kay, and Laura Mahoney

To contact the reporter on this story: Brenna Goth in Phoenix at bgoth@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com

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