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Mandatory masks: Who will enforce the governor's order?

Under an executive order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont, residents of Connecticut are required to wear masks or cloth face coverings whenever they come within 6 feet of another person in a public place.

The order, which went into effect on Monday, states that everyone must cover their mouth and nose when in close contact with others outside their home. Due to social distancing guidelines, there are few opportunities for close proximity — such situations are most likely to arise while shopping for groceries or at big box stores, taking public transportation, or walking or exercising outdoors.

It's unclear who is responsible for making sure the public abides by the governor's order — does the responsibility fall on grocery store clerks? Bus drivers? Local police departments? And how, exactly, will the rule be enforced?

Local police departments in the area differ slightly in their strategies but say they are taking these situations as an opportunity to educate the public on the governor's order and why it needs to be followed.

In New London, when officers encounter someone not following the order, the police department plans to first educate those individuals about the order and what options are available for keeping their face safely covered.

"We're going to take advantage of opportunities to educate members of the public and use this as a learning lesson," said Capt. Brian Wright of the New London Police Department.

Overall, responding officers can use their own discretion, Wright said, allowing them to evaluate the situation and circumstances surrounding the person's lack of a mask, including whether the person has a health condition or has been stopped previously for violating the order.

"If we come across a situation with someone who says that they don't have the means to get a mask, we would definitely try to supply one," Wright said, adding that some of the officers' family members have been supplying masks that officers can hand out.

"We're all in this together," he said.

In Waterford, Lt. Marc Balestracci said the police department will be taking a similar approach.

Balestracci said Waterford police have had only a handful of reports of residents violating social distancing guidelines. The department, he said, has been pleased with the public's willingness to comply with the governor's orders and plans to continue to help them do so.

"If they don't have access to anything, we will try our best to help them with that, if possible," Balestracci said. "As demand for masks is still very high, we are not at a point of supplying the general public with surgical or N95 masks yet, but may be able to offer some alternative suggestions by using homemade type face coverings if they are willing."

In Ledyard, Chief John Rich said town police have gotten only four complaints regarding social distancing violations, so they expect residents to be compliant with the mask order. They, too, plan to help and educate their residents.

"If possible, we'll supply them with a mask and solve the issue that way," Rich said.

Officers are regularly checking businesses that are open, to make sure they are maintaining occupancy limits and enforcing social distancing.

Residents and business owners found to be violating social distancing guidelines or the order to wear masks may be issued a misdemeanor summons for violating restrictions put into place by the governor during a public health emergency, as declared by Lamont in March.

But, "If we can resolve it with personal relations and diplomacy, that's what we're doing," Rich said.

'Living in a social experiment'

John DeCarlo, director of the master's program in criminal justice at the University of New Haven and an expert on policing strategy, said he's unsure if such misdemeanor summons would hold up in court by the time they see a courtroom.

DeCarlo said the court systems "are on skeletal crews right now and they aren't able to handle an overage of new tickets or new summonses."

"Whether those summonses, if they are issued, will be actually enforceable or constitutional remains to be seen," he said. "We are living literally in a social experiment and we will see the outcome at the end of the pandemic."

Police departments said their officers are aware that the governor's order does not require people who have a health condition to wear a mask if the condition will be impacted by it, and won't have to show paperwork to prove it.

The order also states masks aren't required by children in child care settings, for anyone under the age of 2 years, or older children if their parent or guardian can't place the mask on them safely.

'Mindful of one another'

Part of the responsibility to uphold the order falls on workers at stores that are still open — and crowded.

At Stop & Shop stores in Waterford, Groton and East Lyme, staff are strictly enforcing the mask order — shoppers found without masks on will be asked to finish their shopping trip quickly and return to the store only if they're wearing a mask.

"Stop & Shop continues to prioritize the health and safety of our associates and customers in all that we do. In Connecticut, Stop & Shop is requiring customers to wear masks or face coverings while shopping with us in compliance with the state law," said Maura O'Brien, a spokesperson for the chain.

The stores, which recognize that some people may be prohibited by health conditions, are making efforts to remind all shoppers of the governor's order.

"We have signage at all entrances and throughout the store reminding customers of these requirements, as well as in-store radio announcements reiterating the mandate," O'Brien said.

At Walmart stores in Groton and Waterford, all employees are being provided with masks that they are required to wear and workers are actively encouraging shoppers to wear masks. Signs are posted throughout the store.

However, because of allowances for individuals with health conditions, the store doesn't plan to restrict those without masks from entering.

"Maintaining customer and associate safety remains our top priority," a spokesperson for the store, Casey Staheli, said in a statement. "We encourage customers to be especially mindful of one another during this unprecedented time and adhere to recommendations that we all use face coverings while in public spaces."

At Ocean State Job Lot stores, located in Groton, Waterford and Gales Ferry, masks will be required in all nine states in which the store is located, starting Monday. Staff have posted signs reinforcing each governor's requirements and masks have been made a part of employees' mandatory dress code, according to Paul Cox, director of store operations.

"We expect that customers will wear a mask when they enter the store, not only to comply with the governor's order, but also for the safety of fellow shoppers and our store associates," he said.

All ALDI store and warehouse employees were required to wear masks as of Friday and the company expects the same of everyone who works in or enters their facilities, spokesperson Brenne Schlehuber said.

Mass transit has been another area of concern.

The state Department of Transportation and transit operators are promoting social distancing with signs and social media posts, and operators are reminding riders to wear a face mask or covering. That’s in addition to other measures, including shifting customer boarding to the rear door, using helper buses to reduce crowding, frequent sanitization and using driver partitions.

“We have learned in recent days that customers are largely complying with the mask wearing guidance,” DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said by email Saturday.

“Our transit operators continue to provide an essential service during this crisis, ensuring that front-line workers are able to get to work and families are able to go pick up essentials such as groceries and medicine,” he said. “We are asking the public to continue to do all they can to protect our heroes moving heroes.”

t.hartz@theday.com

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