San Jose leaders on Tuesday unanimously approved moving forward with a mandatory face covering requirement, despite concerns from San Jose law enforcement that it would criminalize residents.
The proposal, authored by Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, would require most people to wear a mask every time they step outside. The new directive comes one day after Santa Clara County public health leaders loosened local health orders to allow certain retailers to reopen for curbside pick-up.
The county’s new order mandates face coverings inside all businesses, a notable change from previous orders that merely encouraged wearing masks.
“It is clearly the best practice throughout the world in dealing with this virus,” Mayor Sam Liccardo, who supported the initiative, said. “(Masks) do not serve primarily to protect the mask wearers — they protect everyone else and that is a critical public health directive right now.”
The mandate would exempt masks for people exercising, children 6 years old or younger, or anyone who is otherwise unable to wear a face covering without assistance, as well as those advised by medical professionals not to wear one.
While many lawmakers said masks are an important step to curbing the spread of the virus, some said enforcing the new directive would create an additional hurdle for the city’s police department.
Councilmember Johnny Khamis expressed concern about enforcing the new mandate and said he can’t support a proposal that would “criminalize” people who aren’t wearing masks when walking their dog or picking up a newspaper.
“If I’m on my sidewalk, I don’t feel like I should be in violation of the law,” he said.
But Jones said five counties in the Bay Area have already implemented similar mandates and that the idea is “not radical,” but a necessary safety measure to save lives. San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda, Marin, San Mateo and Sonoma counties have issued required face mask mandates, as well as the cities of Palo Alto, Cupertino and Milpitas.
“What we are proposing is not radical, it is not infringing on people’s constitutional rights,” Jones said. “If we don’t have these types of safety measures as we open up the economy, then we’re going to have a spike in cases — we’re going to have more deaths.”
Still, San Jose police officials said they’re worried enforcing the mandate would “drive a wedge” between law enforcement and certain communities.
“We’re continuing to drive a wedge between us and the community by having officers asked to enforce these health orders,” San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said. “This is not a good idea to continue to criminalize otherwise law-abiding residents for not wearing a mask.”
While the city won’t enforce the measure by issuing citations or penalizing residents, Liccardo said the move would establish “norms of behavior” to keep people safe as they go back to work.
“It is important to establish norms of behavior and laws do serve to establish those norms even if they are not perfectly enforced or enforced to the maximum,” Liccardo said, who added it was an important step to getting people back to work.
“That is my most important priority — getting people safely back to work so they can earn a paycheck, because we’ve got thousands of families struggling on the edge right now,” he added.
While some people may not “follow the rules,” Jones said, he believes many residents who “want to do the right thing” will abide by the mandate.
“I don’t have an expectation that every single person is going to follow the rules,” he said. “The expectation is that people who are honest and want to do the right thing are going to do the right thing.”
City officials will draft an ordinance and return to the City Council June 2 to discuss implementing the measure and aligning it with the county’s revised health order. It’s unclear when the new rules will go into effect.
Contact Nadia Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.