Walking on the Atlantic City Boardwalk last week, Valeria Marcus said she saw only a mother and her daughter wearing masks. The majority of people were barefaced.
“I personally find it very offensive, walking in the store or down the street, people fishing, people in a crowd not wearing their masks,” said Marcus, a city resident. “I think that’s wrong. I think you should respect other people.”
Not everyone shares Marcus’ view.
Ventnor resident Beverly Burns said she had panic attacks from a face covering blocking her breathing during a recent grocery shopping trip.
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“I’m not worried about the virus, because I stay away from people,” Burns said, recalling a woman sneezing on the beach recently. “Let me tell you the heads that snapped around. It was almost comical.”
Disputes over mask mandates have raged throughout the country as more officials require them, following the lead of experts who argue face coverings mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The disagreements have turned a public health issue political as people divide into two groups: those who wear masks and those who have been dubbed “antimaskers.”
Supporters of the mandates say it’s a common-sense move to control the spread of a deadly disease, while those who oppose it call it an infringement on personal rights that can divide a community, arguing the severity of the new coronavirus is closer to that of the flu.
But health officials have been clear — masks are one of the only defenses against a disease for which there is no vaccine, proven therapeutics or cure, and has so far claimed the lives of more than 13,000 New Jerseyans, with more than 400 of those fatalities coming from Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
New Jersey has mandated masks outside where social distancing is not possible. Was this the right move?
Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed an executive order requiring face coverings outside when social distancing isn’t possible — with limited exceptions — to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, joining California, Connecticut, New York and several other states. Murphy cited a “backslide in compliance” in the state and around the country as a reason for the mandate.
Violations of the order are considered disorderly persons offenses, which carry up to six months in jail, a maximum $1,000 fine or both.
Murphy said not wearing a mask is “an act of selfishness.”
“Trust me, this virus doesn’t care what political party you belong to,” Murphy said during a briefing Wednesday announcing the details of the order. “It doesn’t care what you may or may not think about masking up. It doesn’t care about you or your family. It frankly just wants to kill you and move on to the next victim. It does care, however, if you wear a mask.”
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During that same briefing, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said face coverings, social distancing, staying home when sick, good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette are “all we have” in the fight against the disease.
“Wearing a face covering or mask has been shown to dramatically decrease the release of droplets from people’s mouths, which can carry infectious particles,” she said. “Studies have demonstrated that masks are an important barrier to the transmission of respiratory viruses.”
Jessica Formento, of North Cape May in Lower Township, said the mandate “seems like common sense” and “a no-brainer.”
“I do think it’s just common decency,” said Formento, who suffers from asthma and has been strict about her own mask-wearing for months. “It doesn’t make any sense that people are up in arms about it.”
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Why wouldn’t people want to protect themselves and their community, or a community they’re visiting, Formento asked, citing the crowds on Cape May’s Washington Street Mall.
“If you’re outside and can’t distance yourself, wear a mask,” she said.
But Murphy has been inconsistent with his stance on masks, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said, citing the multiple police brutality protests that have drawn hundreds together all over the state in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.
“Social distancing and masks are either required or they’re not,” Levinson said. “There’re mixed signals there. I do believe that’s why he’s been having difficulty with enforcement. I think that message should be made clear.”
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Most people he’s seen have been wearing masks, he said, noting that enforcement with be tough.
“If you leave people to their devices, they’re going to speed, they’re going to jaywalk,” he said, adding that people react because of consequences.
“I do know one thing: I wear a mask,” Levinson said, and his family does as well. “It’s something that we choose to do and it’s the right thing, but I also go the speed limit.”
But Burns said the mandate was “stepping on our rights a little too much” and could lead to community members trying to police each other.
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“It’s very divisive,” she said. “This country is divided enough without making it more so.”
Marcus said Murphy’s mandate is coming too late.
“I think the governor should have done this in the very beginning. I think he waited too late,” she said, adding the state should be giving free masks to residents who can’t afford them. “This is July. It should have happened around April.”