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Leaving home? Cover your face, whether there is a legal mandate or not | COMMENTARY

A woman covers her face to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus in Washington, D.C. last week. The District of Columbia requires grocery shoppers to wear such facial coverings as do a handful of counties in Maryland.
A woman covers her face to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus in Washington, D.C. last week. The District of Columbia requires grocery shoppers to wear such facial coverings as do a handful of counties in Maryland. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

For nearly two weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been recommending that all Americans wear a cloth face covering if they must leave home for such essential purposes as purchasing groceries or picking up a prescription. It doesn’t require people to somehow get their hands on an N-95 respirator or other specialized protective gear that should be reserved for front line health care providers. Nor does it replace social distancing guidelines that call for keeping 6 feet of space between individuals. It simply means to use whatever cloth one might have at home, perhaps a t-shirt wrapped around one’s head or a scarf. The point is not to make a fashion statement, it’s to reduce the likelihood that the novel coronavirus will spread through the air between individuals who might cough, sneeze or even speak. As the CDC has also acknowledged, carriers of the virus don’t necessarily display symptoms. Wearing a cloth covering is as much about protecting others from you as it might be about protecting you from others.

Yet it’s clear that some people aren’t getting the message, or at least choosing to ignore the recommendation. That’s likely why Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday signed an executive order mandating face coverings statewide beginning this Saturday at 7 a.m. for anyone riding public transportation or going into a retail store to shop. The penalty? Up to a $5,000 fine and/or a year in jail for willful violations. It follows similar efforts in places like Carroll County where transit riders are already denied service unless they are wearing a face covering and Anne Arundel County where the county health officer has ordered them for shopping effective Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young signed an executive order merely encouraging city residents to wear a face covering in public, especially while shopping.

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Still, signing an order that raises the possibility of police enforcement isn’t to be taken lightly, particularly in Baltimore, a jurisdiction where police have far better things to do. That’s why the difference of opinion between Mayor Young and members of the Baltimore City Council who wanted a stronger legal mandate to outright require face coverings is beside the point (particularly given how limited the scientific evidence that non-medical cloth coverings do all that much good and now that a statewide mandate will soon be in effect renders local decision making moot). Here’s the better question for city leaders: How can we get the most people to follow CDC guidelines, not just regarding cloth facial coverings, but all the guidelines?

For Baltimore, maybe more than any other subdivision in this state, it requires reaching out and educating people. The city is home to concentrated poverty, individuals who aren’t necessarily attuned to the latest CDC admonishments but wrestle each day with a lot of immediate needs such as looking after children when schools are closed, struggling to make ends meet and dealing with the effects of addiction and violent crime. Small wonder that misinformation — such as the persistent but sadly mistaken belief that African American residents have nothing to fear from the COVID-19 virus — can run so rampant when, in fact, the latest health data show Maryland’s black residents represent a higher proportion of individuals diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and suffer a higher mortality rate from the disease than whites. It’s a point Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa has raised repeatedly but she could use all the help she can get. Face coverings may be modestly helpful but if people aren’t aware of the risks and take other actions that endanger their lives and the lives of others, they are of truly limited value.

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That’s why we would like to see more attention paid to what city officials have described as “culturally relevant signage” and other forms of advertising, particularly social media and cell phone platforms that young people follow, to get the word out about the threat of COVID-19 and what people should be doing to protect themselves and their neighbors. Here’s to the Instagram thought leaders who rap about social distancing and NAACP-sponsored tele-town hall briefings. The city needs more of that and fewer viral videos of a police sergeant deliberately coughing on public housing residents as if it were all a joke. Health department orders have their place as well but they would be far more effective if the public — and that means all of us — truly understood the threat. That includes how we don’t have a vaccine or proven drug therapy and that slowing the spread of the disease is the best strategy available to us. Wearing a face covering is just one small part of that.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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