To mask or not to mask?

These are confusing times and Lorain County Health Commissioner Dave Covell is trying to set the record straight. He offered some hard and fast rules we all must follow to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the more than 5,000 calls the office has received since the start of the pandemic, two common questions are:

MUST I WEAR A MASK? “Yes. It’s a state mandate that anyone out in the public must wear a face covering to prevent spread of the disease,” Covell said.

That answer leads to the second most common question:

WHAT IF I REFUSE? “People who refuse could be subject to a misdemeanor charge (of) failure to comply with an order and fined up to $1,000,” he said. “And that could change this week because the governor is designing new methods to assist health departments with enforcing compliance.”

However, the health department does not have agents driving around looking for people not wearing masks. It’s almost impossible to enforce the law on that level, Covell said. Instead, the department puts the responsibility on business owners.

Most of the Lorain County Public Health staff deals with mask violations at businesses, bars and restaurants, he said.

Since it’s almost impossible to track down a maskless person once they have left a business, the department concentrates on making sure that business employees set an example by wearing masks. That is where most enforcement is done.

A typical investigation starts with a member of the public reporting maskless employees of a business to the department by calling 440-322-6367.

“Once we get the complaint, we reach out to management and give them a chance to explain,” Covell said. “If they say they understand and agree to talk to their employees to ensure compliance, we’re good. But we will check up on them, especially if we get another complaint.

“Sometimes store owners are hostile and say they believe the virus is ridiculous, or something like that. We explain the law to them and definitely follow up with a visit.”

If the violations continue, the case is referred to the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office.

“Our job is to point out the violation,” Covell said. “We fill out an affidavit and turn it over to the prosecutors to handle the enforcement. We have not yet handed a case over to them, but we will if necessary.”

There was early discussion about the county sheriff taking on the enforcement role, but Lorain County – like many counties in the state – did not want to take on the responsibility.

“As it stands, the sheriff’s office would step in if a person was told to put on a mask in a store and instead became belligerent,” Covell said. “Then the sheriff’s office would take over.”

The health department has more power over bars and restaurants than stores and shops.

“We’re always checking on bars and restaurants anyway,” he said. “If we get a complaint about employees not wearing masks, we start with a call and usually follow up with a visit. We issue a warning letter if necessary and work with management to make sure everyone is compliant. Besides us, the state Liquor Control Board has its own enforcement team that inspects and will cite the establishment for violations.”

In addition to monitoring masks, the department makes sure seating follows social-distancing rules. Businesses that ignore warnings face fines or the loss of their liquor license. They could even be ordered closed by the health department, which hasn’t yet happened in Lorain County, Covell said.

“Bars and restaurants are easy for us to handle,” he said. “Especially if they are corporately owned. They want to cooperate.”

Covell said it’s important that everyone follow the rules for masks, social distancing and hand washing to stop the virus from spreading. “We get calls from people who don’t understand this, or don’t want to understand,” he said. “We patiently explain the science and try to convince them. Some will argue that the masks make them pass out. We tell them they have to be smart and use logic.”

As to the thorny question of what a civilian should do if they see someone not wearing a mask in public, he said there is no easy answer.

He said not to confront the people without masks.

“Avoid them,” he said. “Don’t go after them, don’t take their picture or follow them. That might not end well.”

Instead, he said, report the violation to the manager, since it falls on the manager to enforce the law. Stores and restaurants are encouraged to post signs that say masks are required to enter and all employees must wear masks. And they can ask a maskless person to leave. If the person becomes abusive, managers can call the sheriff or police.

Covell said most of the public’s questions can be answered at the health department’s website:

Michael Sangiacomo is an author from South Amherst.

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