HOBOKEN, NJ - The City Council voted down a measure that would have imposed a $250 fine on individuals not wearing a mask properly in public. Buy a margin of 6-3, the ordinance was rejected in favor of a more proactive approach.
Nationwide, the debate over wearing a mask to fight COVID-19 infection is reaching a fever pitch. While science and medicine overwhelmingly tout the benefits of masks, many people still actively choose not to wear the masks or choose to wear them improperly—citing disbelief and/or the exercise of personal freedom.
"What we need is to get the message across that we are all in this together," said Dr Anthony Fauci, noted physician and immunologist who serves as Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. "And it’s important because one of the purposes of the masks is that if you may be inadvertently walking around not knowing you’re infected—to protect others from getting infected.”
Hoboken's ordinance would have fined individuals, "in the most egregious circumstances and after repeated verbal warnings, and only when social distancing is not possible," according to Hoboken City Spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri. Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla sent a letter to Councilmembers clarifying the regulations hours before the vote, while citing the results of a poll conducted by the City earlier this week in which slightly over half (51%) of those responding agreed or strongly agreed with the implementation of an ordinance. The poll was based on responses from 3,600 Hoboken residents—less than 7% of the City's estimated population.
During Wednesday's meeting, the measure was voted down in what has become a familiar pattern in Council votes, with Councilmembers Phil Cohen, James Doyle, and Emily Jabbour—all outspoken Bhalla allies—voting in favor of the fines.
"Hoboken needs to instill a culture of compliance with respect to mask-wearing in places where it is impossible to practice social distancing," said Cohen, in a statement following the vote. "The failure to authorize the City to issue warnings and tickets for such risky misconduct emboldens 'mask-less' visitors to continue squeezing past us on our sidewalks and in our parks—further diminishing the quality of life in our City, particularly for our seniors and at-risk population, who are rightly fearful to venture into Hoboken’s public spaces due to the risks of COVID-19 and the poor rates of compliance in our community."
Council President Jen Giattino, who voted against the measure, told TAPinto Hoboken, "Due to do the already stressed environment we are currently experiencing, the best solution would be a Mask Ambassador program. Having trained ambassadors using a passive and positive approach, while handing out individually wrapped masks would be the most effective approach the City should take."
The public response to mask has gone from petulance to violence in a number of cases. In Hackensack, a woman had her leg broken following a physical altercation in an office supply store. In Michigan, a mask fight turned fatal the day after a mask law was enacted there.
The Hoboken ordinance was essentially a more aggressive approach to a state executive order put forward by Governor Murphy, but raised many questions regarding enforcement and overreach. Last week, Hoboken Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante said, "The last thing I want is our officers involved in a situation that can bring negative police-community relations as we are so far ahead of the curve in positive relations compared to other cities in the region."
As written, the ordinance stipulated that, "Any administrative employee assigned may enforce the provisions of this Ordinance, including but not limited to: the Office of Emergency Management; the Police Department; members of the COVID-19 taskforce; Code Enforcement Officers; the Zoning Department; and the Construction Official."
First Ward Councilman Michael DeFusco issued a statement Thursday morning, saying, "the fairness of having employees not trained in public health and the possibility of bias impacting their decision creates a dangerous slippery slope, policy wise."
Councilman-At-Large James Doyle said, "“The debate over the proposed mask ordinance is not nearly as complicated as certain councilpersons are making it. A fair, broad survey was conducted and the results are clear, for those who want to decide based on the will of the electorate. If one feels the very concept is a governmental overreach, then the decision is easy for you, too. For me, I believe that masks are protective, and the burden of wearing one is low, so as a legislator, I feel we should err on the side of protecting the public, especially our seniors and most vulnerable.”
Hoboken has been relatively successful in the fight against COVID-19. Since March, the city of around 55,000 has had less than 700 confirmed cases and 29 fatalities—noteworthy, considering its location directly across the Hudson River from New York City. Numbers had been declining steadily, however, officials are concerned that recent cavalier attitudes toward the pandemic will reignite a secondary surge in our area.
Said DeFusco, "I remain fully committed to seeing an aggressive enforcement of the governor’s Executive Order, so long as it does not include a financially punitive fine. Instead, let’s focus our city’s resources on continuing COVID-19 education / outreach, mask distribution and bringing Hoboken together through science and facts, not driving us apart with politics."
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