Column: People are still not wearing masks? It’s time to start enforcing the rules

Masked and unmasked Californians crossing the street.
Despite an order requiring masks, some Californians wear them and some don’t.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Do we care about stopping this disease or don’t we?

It’s been more than six weeks since the city of L.A. issued an emergency order requiring Angelenos to wear masks when they leave their homes. The county issued a similar mandate, and two weeks ago Gov. Gavin Newsom followed up with a statewide requirement.

Yet many Angelenos still stubbornly refuse to take this simple, lifesaving step. Meanwhile COVID-19 cases are surging to new heights.

Public officials have been begging and pleading for compliance. Isn’t it time they moved to Plan B and enforced the rules?


We’ve all seen how many people aren’t complying. Last week, I walked down Larchmont Boulevard in Hancock Park counting. Most people were wearing masks. But in 10 minutes, I saw 18 people on two city blocks who were not, and all of them were walking within six feet of other people. That doesn’t count the people who were sitting at outdoor tables eating or drinking without masks.

All over town, I’ve seen police officers — also not wearing masks — standing by, watching and doing nothing about people violating the emergency order all around them.

Does anyone doubt that the failure to take the mask and social distancing rules seriously is a critical factor in why the United States has been less successful than many other countries in fighting the virus?

At a news briefing on Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he wasn’t urging the LAPD to enforce the mask order because “I don’t want to turn L.A. into a police state.”

But we enforce laws against jaywalking, public intoxication and walking dogs off the leash, among other things. We give out thousands of tickets every year. So why would enforcing this particular rule suddenly make us a police state?

LAPD Chief Michel Moore told my colleague Robin Abcarian in May that “if we take a strong, more enforcement-oriented position, we jeopardize the public’s trust.”

But I would argue that if you issue an order and then make it clear that you don’t care if it is obeyed, that too is a betrayal of the public’s trust.

On Wednesday, the L.A. County Sheriff’s West Hollywood Station announced that it would begin issuing $300 citations to people who violate the mandatory mask rules. On Thursday, Santa Monica authorized ticketing as well. Those are experiments worth trying, though municipalities should be careful not to set the fines too high.

I get the concerns. No one wants to turn a tragic public health crisis into a giant law enforcement confrontation.

And by all means, let’s be reasonable. The authorities can urge scofflaws to don masks first before issuing tickets. Let enforcement officers try handing out masks to those who don’t have them.

But having no consequences at all sends the wrong message. Surely on weekends and holidays, the city of L.A. and the county should have at least a small, symbolic presence in parks, on hiking trails and at other known gathering points. An official could warn people, “You know, if I come back here in 10 minutes and you’re still not masked, you’ll get a ticket.” The offer of a mask combined with the threat of a ticket would likely have an immediate effect on compliance. That doesn’t seem like totalitarianism to me, not in the middle of a pandemic.

To their credit, both the city and the state have taken actions against bars and restaurants that have reopened but failed to follow the rules. In a few cases, businesses have had their heat or power turned off or their licenses revoked.

But the rules covering individuals are important too.

Mask-wearing is not an issue of personal freedom or government overreach. It is an issue of public health. We are required to wear masks not to protect ourselves, but to protect others. That’s why the order deserves enforcing.

And if we’re concerned about unnecessary altercations between the police and the public, perhaps we don’t want armed, uniformed officers enforcing public health laws. Well, fine — maybe it’s time to do what the City Council and others have discussed and set up a demilitarized band of specialists to do this kind of work. It shouldn’t require a SWAT team.

The government has been sending mixed messages on masks for months even though the science is clear: We need to wear them.

But one way to send a mixed message is to pass a law and then allow people to disobey it.