St. Joseph County health officials are considering a push to fine businesses that violate the coronavirus mask order, an idea that has bipartisan support among county elected officials.
Since issuing the order May 4, the health department has found nearly 70 violations by businesses not requiring employees to wear masks. Inspectors are currently advising non-complying businesses on required procedures under the order, which include providing hand sanitizer for customers, but have no power to issue fines. The order has been extended to Sept. 7.
Dr. Mark Fox, the county’s deputy health officer, said his department’s initial focus was on educating the public about the importance of wearing masks, and it next wants to publicly highlight for the media businesses that are “doing it well.”
Now health department leaders are working on a stick to add to that carrot: a fine-enabling ordinance that the county council and commissioners would need to approve.
“I think there’s some interest, certainly at the level of the people charged with inspections and enforcement in the Department of Health, and among elected officials, to support that,” Fox said. “As long as we have a public order for masks, they’d like to find ways to ensure that it can be effective.”
Fox said the health department’s goal is to have the fine structure to the county Board of Health for its next meeting July 15. If passed, it would proceed to the county council, which would eventually holds its own vote and, if approved, move it the three-member commissioner board by mid-August. Officials could schedule emergency meetings to speed things up.
Although final approval could be a few weeks away, County Auditor Mike Hamann says it would be worthwhile, although he acknowledged the initial confusion from national health officials about the effectiveness of masks and the political divide that has emerged.
“To be honest, this coronavirus is going to be with us for several months,” Hamann said. “And how do we work this all out with businesses regarding the contradictory things the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) said initially, and addressing this whole cultural divide? Maybe it would need that much time for vetting anyway.”
In recent months, national, state and local health officials have agreed that masks can help people who are infected from spreading the virus, especially if they are not showing symptoms, and have repeatedly urged that they be worn. In St. Joseph County, health and elected leaders have credited the mask order with keeping the local infection rate lower than in other counties.
Democratic county council member Diana Hess said she would “most likely” support fines, although she expects to hear heated public debate.
“I’m a firm believer that masks and social distancing are our only protections right now,” Hess said. “I think we’ve done a good job here in the county of keeping cases down, but that doesn’t mean if we’re not careful, they won’t spike.”
Hess said a friend recently texted her to relay that she had canceled her appointment for an oil change after walking into the business and seeing no one wearing masks.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s become a politicized issue,” Hess said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we even have to talk about it.”
Democratic council member Joe Canarecci indicated he would lean toward supporting fines, while noting he would first want to see details.
“In government, we employ and appoint professionals to do their job and I do tend to listen to their guidance,” Canarecci said. “I don’t know the right temperature at which to store dairy products, but the health department does, and if a restaurant doesn’t follow that guideline, they can be cited for it. … If the health department presents compelling science and data … I’d have to listen to their advice and guidance and see how we can keep the public safe.”
Republican council member Mark Telloyan agreed.
“As long as the science shows that wearing a mask reduces the transmission of the COVID virus, I’m not necessarily opposed to it,” Telloyan said. “I’d have to hear it, though, from the experts.”
Republican County Commissioner Andy Kostielney said fining businesses for employees not wearing masks is “reasonable” but he would be reluctant to support fines on businesses because customers aren’t wearing them.
“I know we’ve had issues at different departments in the County-City Building when employees weren’t wearing masks the way they should, and our position was you don’t have a choice, it’s something you need to do,” Kostielney said. “Customer-wise that’s a little more challenging … We don’t want to put anyone in the situation where they’ve got to forcibly tell someone they need to wear a mask or face covering because that puts people who aren’t normally in a position to do things like that kind of in an awkward spot.”
Jeff Rea, president and CEO of the South Bend Regional Chamber, the area’s business advocacy group, said he also would support fines.
“Most businesses generally are trying to comply the best they can, and my guess is there are some that are just blatantly disregarding it,” Rea said. “I haven’t heard any heartburn from anybody about any kind of enforcement mechanism, as long as there’s good judgment that goes along with it. I’m sensitive with retailers not wanting to have that confrontation.”
Democratic County Commissioner Dave Thomas said he too would support fines.
“The stronger, the better,” he said. “I’ve noticed, what little shopping I’m doing, 90% of the people are wearing masks but a few people are not and it scares (others). This is a very serious issue.”
The current mask order can’t be enforced by police because it’s administrative law. But county police enforce county ordinances, such as those prohibiting leaf burning. Kostielney said he would want to hear from Sheriff Bill Redman on how enforcing a mask ordinance would affect the department.
Redman said if that discussion occurs, he would stress that “this would be an additional request” for officers.
“Typically an officer has to witness a violation” of the leaf burning ordinance, he said. “If we get called to a restaurant and they said this person doesn’t have a mask on, and we get there and they have a mask on, it just seems like it would be a tough ask for our officers.”