The emergency mandate, which went into effect early Thursday, appears to be the first of its kind in the country, as The Washington Post’s Arelis Hernández reported. Other communities, most notably Los Angeles, have strongly suggested wearing masks to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. But Laredo is taking a far more aggressive approach, threatening to punish those who don’t cover their noses and mouths with a $1,000 fine.
“I’d rather bury them in debt than bury them in a coffin,” city councilman George Altgelt said during a special session on Tuesday.
The directive has been controversial, given that roughly a third of Laredo’s population lives at or below the poverty line, and there’s no global consensus on whether mandatory face coverings can significantly slow the spread of the virus. For weeks, public health officials in the United States have been discouraging people who aren’t sick from wearing masks, and emphasizing the need to save protective gear for health-care workers.
But many scientists are skeptical of that advice, and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are considering recommending that homemade cloth masks be worn in public, The Post reported on Monday.
As of Thursday night, 65 people in Laredo had tested positive for covid-19, and five deaths had been attributed to the virus, according to statistics provided by the city. Many fear that the numbers could grow much higher, given Laredo’s proximity to a major international border crossing. While only essential workers and commercial trucks are allowed to enter the United States from Mexico, there have been calls for additional precautions, and the city has enacted a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“We’re next-door neighbors to a country that’s not even taking this seriously,” Altgelt said at Tuesday’s special council session.
Some Laredoans question the wisdom of imposing steep financial penalties at a time of widespread unemployment, and have suggested on social media that the mask ordinance is a “cash grab” devised to raise municipal revenue. Lawmakers, however, say the measure is intended to emphasize that each individual citizen has a responsibility to help flatten the curve.
“We’re not trying to drown people in debt, we’re trying to get a point across,” city councilman Marte Martinez said at Tuesday’s session. “The point is making it very clear to everyone that as a government body, we think this is important.”
As the first U.S. city to mandate masks or other face coverings, Laredo has had to figure out exactly what that means. Initially, the Laredo Morning Times reported, council members voted to require people to cover their noses and mouths anytime they went outdoors. But that proved to be far too broad, and the directive was tweaked to specify that people should cover up inside buildings that are open to the public, at the gas pump, on public transportation, or while taking Uber or Lyft.
The regulations continue to be a work in progress, Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz told reporters during a Wednesday news conference. He acknowledged that he’d received calls from bank tellers who didn’t feel comfortable with people entering the lobby with masks on.
“We’re trying to go through and see if we can carve out some common-sense approaches to it,” Saenz said. “I know some people feel that we’re infringing on their liberty, but safety and lives are first and foremost. So please bear with us.”
Where to get masks has been another source of confusion. During Tuesday’s council session, at least one member floated the idea of allowing Hobby Lobby to reopen so that people could purchase fabric and make their own. But that wasn’t feasible, because the craft store is considered a nonessential business under an executive order issued this week by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
While some worry that Laredo’s new policy will exacerbate the existing shortage of medical masks, local businesses ranging from bridal salons to children’s boutiques have started making and selling their own fabric versions, and orders have poured in. Other Laredoans have been posting DIY tutorials on social media, demonstrating how to turn a bandanna or T-shirt into a makeshift mask.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Laredo City Manager Robert Eads clarified that bandannas and scarves would be considered acceptable as face coverings. The requirement was to cover one’s mouth and nose, not necessarily to wear masks, he said.
👍There are different protective layers that you can use to cover cover your mouth and nose!— City of Laredo (@cityoflaredo) April 3, 2020
🔷You can use a scarf
🔷You can use a bandana
🔷You can use a face cover
🔷You can even create your own face mask with a bandana and hair ties! pic.twitter.com/cm0tMB6wlh
“We’re begging you not to seek out N95 masks from our medical community,” he added. “That should be reserved only for them.”
Officials have also emphasized that police officers and judges will have discretion over whether to levy fines. But they hope that the threat of a pricey citation will, at the very least, serve as a warning to take the virus seriously.
“The whole point of this is for people to stay safe in their homes,” City of Laredo spokesman Rafael Benavides told The Post on Thursday. “We want people to think twice before running out the door about whether it’s necessary.”