Face Masks in the Summer of California’s Discontent

In a state of 40 million, compliance with the statewide face mask mandate is predictably as diverse as Californians are.

Customers at the Bath & Body Works store in Turlock, Calif., waiting to be ushered inside. (Courthouse News photo / Paul Roupe)

(CN) — Once lauded as the exemplar when it comes to flattening the coronavirus curve, California is in the throes of a rapidly expanding pandemic after relaxing many of the stay-at-home provisions. 

In recognition that stringent lockdown policies could have a devastating economic effect that could be equal to or worse than the public health problems created by the disease, state officials have urged residents to obey social distancing rules and wear a mask when out in public, particularly when social distancing is difficult or there are crowds. 

This past week, Governor Gavin Newsom instituted a statewide mandate. On Tuesday, the governor called wearing a mask the best “nonpharmaceutical measure” residents have to help combat the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. 

With a reporting presence in all 58 Golden State counties, Courthouse News Service took a look at what compliance looks like in a sampling of them. 

Los Angeles County

In the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in California, Brooke Andrews just arrived at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles from the Central Coast on Monday morning. 

She wore a mask and a single surgical glove over her right hand.

“I’m sorta afraid to touch my phone,” said Andrews, who works as a bartender in Northern California. “I slept a little on the bus. Most everyone was wearing a mask and I didn’t hear anyone coughing or sneezing. But as soon as we stopped here, I saw people without masks on.”

That is the experience of many up and down the state, where wearing a cloth covering over the face is generally hit or miss. 

At Nijiya Market in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo community, a clerk donning a plastic face shield, goggles and blue gloves stands at the entrance, stopping customers entering the store without wearing a face mask.

Safe shopping protocols are taped to pillars outside the market, reminding shoppers reusable bags are banned and that people should physically distance from others inside the store.

Next to Nijiya, in Japanese Village Plaza, customers stand under decorative lanterns outside Café Dulce, waiting for coffee and breakfast ordered through contactless payment.

For LA resident Jackie, who declined to share her last name while waiting in line at Café Dulce, the new safety protocols enforced by businesses are vital — but also a hindrance.

“I don’t think they should be having these restrictions,” said Jackie, who wore a cloth face mask emblazoned with the Dodgers logo. “These things are against the Constitution. I just think it’s kind of crazy.”

In Pasadena, most people shopping and walking in the central part of the city wear masks. A young woman talking with a friend, however, has her mask pulled down to hang around her neck. Waiters in a restaurant called Sorriso’s on Colorado Boulevard, the main street in town which leads to the Ninth Circuit courthouse, wear masks as well as face shields. The guests sitting at tables, inside and outdoors, wear neither.

Riverside County

Intensive care units in Riverside County east of LA are at 99% capacity and the region has seen a surge in Covid-19 infections, which has likely spurred overall compliance with Newsom’s mask mandate. 

Businesses in downtown Riverside have signage indicating that masks are required to enter, with the exception of a few gas stations and liquor stores. Customers for the most part comply, though many take their masks off immediately upon exiting.

San Diego County 

Roughly 1 out of 10 people wear masks as they stroll and jog along a popular walkway above the beach, along the Pacific Coast Highway in the north San Diego town of Carslbad. The few exceptions are older women, as well as Hispanic families.

On the beach below, no one wears a mask. On the inland side of the highway, flapping in the ocean breeze in one of the front yards is a large light-blue “Trump” flag emblazoned with his slogan, “Keep America Great.”

Inside a Rite Aid drugstore two blocks inland, most customers are not wearing masks. A woman working in the pharmacy area and wearing a mask complains that “This is where the sickest people come.” She adds that many of the area’s homeless also enter the store.

“We have asked corporate about it,” she said, “and they say they’re not in charge of policing people.”

In the store window, there is no sign requiring masks to be worn.  

But a reporter in San Diego’s Ocean Beach said masks are indeed required and the rule is rarely if ever broken.

A shopper departs one of the stalls at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market in San Diego with a bag of spot prawns on Saturday, June 6. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

Imperial County

Despite a face covering mandate in place since early April, Imperial County has seen dramatic increases in Covid positivity rates in recent days. Still, our reporter there said, “Face coverings have certainly become the new normal in this area. While driving through the streets, you can’t help but notice that virtually everyone has their mask on, including those walking their dogs, pumping gas or even while inside their own car.”

Stores require patrons to wear masks, while restaurants remain closed except for curbside takeout.

It’s not an easy place to keep one’s face covered, however: Temperatures last week reached up to 110 degrees.

Santa Clara County

Outside the state courthouse in downtown San Jose, nearly every passerby dons a mask of some sort. 

“I don’t know if masks help for sure,” said Amy Macon, a ballet instructor out for a bite to eat. “But my personal philosophy is that it sounds like it helps to protect other people. I just want to be considerate and have a team-effort type of mentality.”

Inside the Freshly Baked Eatery, the woman who takes orders is wearing a clear face shield. She said business fell off dramatically back in March when the pandemic first appeared but has steadily picked back up. Now that case counts are back on the rise, business has faltered again. 

“I guess we’ll just have to ride the wave,” she said. 

Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties

Santa Barbara has cordoned off wide stretches of State Street to cars to make room for tables and chairs for restaurants desperate to generate business. In the downtown area, about half of the residents who pass along the sidewalks wear masks. On the city’s broad white beaches, compliance is significantly less: only about 20% of beachgoers wore face coverings. 

Ventura beaches are much the same, with the majority of those spread out on the sand without facial coverings. 

The shops that line the downtown streets of Ventura warn customers they cannot enter without a mask. Nevertheless, only about one-third of those seen out on the street wore masks.

San Joaquin County 

Escalon is a small town about 20 minutes outside of Stockton in San Joaquin County. It’s an agricultural community that feels very far away from the metropolises that typically dominate discussions about California and how it copes with the pandemic. 

While several businesses around the town have signs telling customers to mask up before entering, enforcement is lax. 

Out of the 30 or so people who were out and about, only 2 wore masks — both employees of stores and or restaurants. Most of the diners at restaurants and patrons at the shops did not wear one. 

In downtown Stockton, compliance is better. Out of the 20 people observed strolling the streets, 8 had masks on. In the stores like Target and Bank of the West, most everyone wore a face covering. However, about a quarter of those who entered Target ignored mask requirements and enforcement was lax. 

Kern County

Bakersfield is the seat of Kern County, in the southern reach of California’s agriculturally dominant Central Valley. It is a bastion of conservatism in the state. 

Most of the people observed during visits to local stores including Walmart wore masks. Most keep it off until they approach the line to enter the store, then don the mask before taking it off immediately upon exiting the store. 

Most of the people observed without masks in Bakersfield were young people, though men with beards and families with young children also tended to eschew the mask requirement.

Tulare and Kings

North of Bakersfield on State Route 99, Tulare and Kings counties have both suffered large outbreaks of the disease despite relatively low population density, mostly due to prisons and slaughterhouses in the area.

But despite the counties landing on the state’s Covid-19 watch list, compliance with the mask order is low. 

Locals having lunch in Visalia, Calif. (Courthouse News photo / Dustin Manduffie)

“Approximately 80% of people walking around downtown were found flouting the governor’s order, despite the “Face covering required” sign on the front door of nearly every business,” our reporter observed. 

David Ajluni works as a security guard for a local grocery store and said most people are understanding when he enforces the rule that says one must wear a mask to enter. There are, of course, exceptions. 

“One guy called Newsom a communist and walked out,” Ajluni said. 

Contra Costa County 

Only about 10-20% of the people walking around outdoors are wearing masks, but the number is much higher indoors. 

“Every person in every store I’ve been to since the regional face covering requirement went into effect has been wearing a face covering with two exceptions: one elderly man who appeared to be homeless and mentally unwell and a few people in a gardening shop,” the Courthouse News reporter said.

The local grocery store has people queue up and wear a mask before they can enter. All of the grocery shopping carts are sanitized before they are distributed to customers. 

A sign at a doggy daycare in Contra Costa County, Calif. reminds customers why masks are required. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

*****

Courthouse News Service also has a presence in Europe. In a mild surprise, our reporters based in the Netherlands and Italy noted that many of the residents there don’t care for mask-wearing orders any more than their American counterparts. 

Italy

In Ceglie Messapica, a town in the southern region of Puglia, about 85% of shoppers at an outdoor fruit and vegetable market wore masks, typically medical masks. But in small cafes and stores nearby, masks are becoming rare. It is common to see no one wearing a mask inside many of Italy’s small cafes, where men are often playing cards and chatting.

At one restaurant and cafe in Puglia’s countryside, for every 10 people showing up to drink an espresso or buy something to eat only two or three kept masks over their mouths. Instead, most people pushed their masks under their chins, left them dangling from an ear or held them in their hands as they ordered and talked.  

In the evening in Ceglie Messapica, when young people gather in the streets to socialize, mask wearing is very rare. Similar scenes are now seen across Italy. 

However, in many corporate department stores and commercial centers masks are obligatory and staff enforce the mask rules. That was the case, for example, at a major sporting goods store in Brindisi, a city in Puglia. A security guard stood at the entrance making sure people were wearing masks before entering, even though his mask hung under his chin. Masks are obligatory in many supermarkets too. 

During the height of the pandemic, many people were seen donning masks even when they were alone in a vehicle driving. But now it is uncommon to see anyone wear a mask while driving.

The Netherlands

Unless you’re on public transportation in the Netherlands, there’s rarely a mask in sight. The only place masks are required for the public is on buses, trams and trains and there, mask usage is nearly 100%.

“It’s kinda annoying but pretty much fine,” said Annemarie Meijer, who was traveling to her sister’s birthday party wearing a mask with a festive flower pattern she found on Etsy.

The fine for not wearing a mask is 95 euros ($110). The Netherlands has more than 50,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 6,100 confirmed deaths, though the government warns the actual number is higher since the country is only counting deaths for those who have tested positive. But numbers have been on the decline and the country has its first day with no deaths from the disease this past week.

“I hate them,” said Rafik Tahiri, who was standing at a bus stop in The Hague without a mask. “I’ve been biking and walking a lot more, or going by car if I can.”

As the bus pulled up, Tahiri pulled a cloth mask from his backpack before boarding. 

Courthouse News reporters Abbie Bethea, Cain Burdeau, Raphael Hicks, Bill Girdner, Rebekah Kearn, Julianna Krolak, Barbara Leonard, Martin Macias Jr., Dustin Manduffie, Chris Marshall, Donna Martinez, Faith Mendoza, Molly Quell, Paul Roupe and Nathan Solis contributed to this report.

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