Customers stay 6 feet away from each other at markers taped to the ground while in the check-out line at Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto on April 9. While most already wear face coverings while entering businesses, Palo Alto is now considering making it a legal requirement. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Concerned that Santa Clara County hasn’t gone far enough in mandating face coverings for people venturing outside during the pandemic, Palo Alto is considering adopting its own law to make coverings a requirement.
The City Council is preparing to consider the new rule this Monday, May 11. If adopted, the requirement for face coverings would apply to anyone visiting an essential business or engaging in most activities outside their homes.
In proposing the new rule, council members said they were inspired by the example of Cupertino, which issued an order on April 24 requiring face coverings in most situations where people leave their homes, including when they are taking public transportation, receiving health care or working on “essential infrastructure.”
The county order has “strongly urged” people to wear face coverings but stops short of legally requiring them. This is in contrast to other agencies, including San Mateo County, where coverings are required. These orders, as well as Cupertino’s, exclude people who are engaged in outdoor recreation activities such as walking, hiking, bicycling or running from the requirement, but those individuals are still encouraged to maintain 6 feet of separation from other people and to carry a covering that they can put on in situations where it’s difficult to maintain the required social distance.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, whose company provides consulting services to retailers, said he was inspired by both Cupertino and by Shenzhen, China, which was able to reopen after the pandemic and which required everyone to wear face masks when going outside. Shenzhen, Tanaka said, is now “90% open.”
“If you look at other cities that have started to reopen their economy, they’ve been able to do so safely by having face masks, having excessive random testing and contact tracing,” Tanaka said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a retired nurse, also strongly favored requiring masks, even if the requirement won’t be strictly enforced. There’s no question, Kniss said, that masks should be used by people who are going to restaurants, picking up coffee or visiting businesses. The city, she said, needs to “put some more grit behind that requirement.”
Even if police officers don’t cite residents without masks, the order can be enforced “politically,” she said.
“What I notice now is that people don’t hesitate to tell somebody else that they ought to have a face mask on,” Kniss said. “I think we’re far more comfortable when we have face masks on. So if we can require this as a city, which is pretty much what the county is doing, people will be more comfortable.”
The issue of whether or not to require face coverings is a rare point of disagreement among Bay Area public health officials, which have been otherwise operating in virtual lockstep in issuing — and, more recently, relaxing — public health orders. Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s health official, has strongly recommended that people wear face coverings but stopped short of requiring them.
In a Q&A sponsored by nonprofit news outlet San Jose Spotlight on April 24, Cody said she didn’t want to order people to wear face coverings because doing so would take enforcement resources away from other important priorities. She also said that she didn’t believe law enforcement would be going into grocery stores and issuing citations for people not wearing face coverings.
Cody also said that she hopes wearing a face covering in public will become a “social norm” so that when people go outside without the covering it should “feel funny.”
“It shouldn’t feel right,” Cody said. “It should feel OK when you’re in your home, with your household, but when you’re not at your home and out and about, you should feel like something is missing. It’s like not having your glasses on.”
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula’s response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.