This story was updated at 7:35 p.m. April 8, 2020, to add comments from Council Member Will Jawando
Montgomery County officials are considering a requirement that all employees and customers in essential facilities and retail stores wear face coverings or masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Cloth face coverings, face masks, dust masks, homemade masks, scarves, bandanas, or handkerchiefs that cover the wearer’s nose and mouth would be acceptable.
The proposed regulation states that any violation would be a Class C civil violation, which would be issued “when compliance cannot be obtained otherwise.” No citations will be given to employers who show “good faith effort” to obtain the appropriate face coverings, according to the proposal.
The County Council is expected to discuss the proposed regulation and put it up for a vote on April 14.
The requirement for essential employers to provide face coverings to employees who interact with coworkers and customers in person would start on April 16.
If employers can’t provide face coverings, they must provide employees with instructions on how to make their own. The requirement would include self-employed people who interact with people in-person.
Customers entering essential places such as hospitals, pharmacies and grocery stores would be required to wear a face covering starting on April 23.
The requirements would end 15 days after Maryland’s state of emergency ends.
Council Members Gabe Albornoz and Hans Riemer are the lead sponsors of the regulation.
Albornoz said in an interview that they hope to add a provision for the county to purchase reusable cloth masks that can be distributed to businesses that feel that they can’t provide them on their own.
He said they were not sure how much the county would spend on the masks.
“We’re waiting on staff to confirm what is reasonable and what we can afford,” he said.
Riemer said in an interview that most council members have signed on as co-sponsors.
“I don’t know if there’s a lot of local governments that have put this in place yet,” he said. “It’s very clear that the workers in grocery stores, hardware stores, the police, the fire — all of these workers are at heightened risk of contracting the virus and the solution is for all of us together to do everything we can to minimize the ability to transmit the virus.”
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all people wear face coverings because a significant number of people with the coronavirus don’t have symptoms and can spread it by speaking, coughing or sneezing when they’re close to someone.
The guideline was a change in the CDC’s original guidance for people to not wear masks if they didn’t have symptoms. The CDC said it changed its position when it became clear that the virus can spread between two people, even if neither exhibits symptoms.
Riemer said he was frustrated by the CDC’s “change of heart,” which he said comes too late.
“The CDC’s guidance is good as encouragement, but it’s not enough to protect the workers,” he said. “The essential-service employees must have more protection which means, ultimately, customers need to wear the masks.”
“I think that’s been our frustration,” Albornoz said. “We’ve gotten mixed messages on so many different issues from the very beginning. We think they should have recommended that earlier because it’s more for people who have it, but not know that they have it and may transmit it.”
Council Member Will Jawando said Wednesday that he agrees that everyone needs to wear face coverings or masks when they’re out for essential trips. But he doesn’t agree with including a potential citation.
If people can’t purchase or make a covering, he doesn’t think they should receive a citation.
“That bothers me,” he said, adding that he’s seen videos from across the country of African Americans trying to enter stores without masks and told to leave.
“We need to make sure it gets out there and provide masks to vulnerable people and don’t do it in a punitive way,” he said.
Albornoz said he doesn’t expect that citations would actually be given and that police would be enforcing it as law.
“It’s not something we’re going to be in a strong position to enforce,” he said He compared it to the state’s stay-at-home order, which is not causing police to arrest people or pull over drivers to enforce.
But if the citation is in the regulation, it’s enforceable, Jawando said.
“I don’t think we want to create a situation where that could happen and if it’s on the books, it could,” he said.
Jawando said he would like to see if any county funds can be used to purchase masks for vulnerable populations and anyone who might have trouble making them.
“It’s a difference between encouraging and requiring. When you require, you want to make sure you have the resources and availability for people who don’t have masks and aren’t able to get them,” he said. “You want to make sure that people have the knowledge and ability to create their own if they’re asked.”
It was not immediately clear whether businesses would have the authority to ask someone to leave, but Riemer said customers could not enter any business without a face covering.
“I’m sure we haven’t thought of every contingency of everyone’s scenarios. I think the point is to enact a sweeping policy that is as broad as we can make it without saying no one can leave the house without a mask,” he said.
If someone is unable to buy a face covering, Albornoz said, a scarf or any homemade covering would work. Riemer also suggested cutting a T-shirt and using rubber bands to create a covering.
“You don’t have to have a sewing machine,” Riemer said. “You don’t have to make one that is artsy.”
According to the CDC, no cloth face coverings should be placed on children under 2 years old; anyone who has trouble breathing; or anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or unable to remove it themselves.
The CDC offers guidelines for making a cloth face mask — whether sewn, cut from a T-shirt or with a bandana.
The CDC says face coverings should be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric and be washable.
Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old woman who worked at a Giant grocery store in Prince George’s County, died on April 1 after contracting the coronavirus. In a statement, Giant said Jordan had last been at work on March 16.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.
To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here