EDITORIAL: It’s serious

Masks: We should wear them, but should we pay if we don’t?

Rio Grande Valley officials this week took the extreme step of requiring residents to cover their mouths and noses when they’re in public areas. It’s extreme because the potential fines seem unreasonably punitive, and enforcement will be difficult.

The cities of Brownsville and Edinburg and Hidalgo County are among the communities that have gone beyond the universal recommendation that people wear face masks outside the home, and made the masks mandatory. Violation of the order generally is a misdemeanor, subject to fines up to $1,000.

Obviously, law enforcement officials need to be prudent in enforcing the new ordinances. If heavy fines were imposed in this high-poverty area, they would only add to the burden of families already dealing with job losses or reduction of hours because of the economic effect of the coronavirus. Moreover, any citation must carry a court summons to honor a person’s constitutional right to defend himself. As long as the potentially fatal virus continues to spread, a court summons could be a death sentence for someone who might contract the disease because he got one — a point rendered moot because courts currently are closed. The virus won’t disappear from one day to another, however, and government offices might reopen before the threat has been eliminated. Officials should continue to reduce requiring people to go out to face the judge or conduct any other business for as long as possible, until any threat of contagion is over.

These orders follow a change in policy by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which originally resisted promoting face masks because many of them don’t provide adequate protection from transmission of the coronavirus. Many masks aren’t used properly, and many people actually increase the chance of infection if they touch the front of the masks to adjust them or take them off.

Other people have resisted such orders because the demand for medical-quality masks already has created a critical shortage among medical professionals who need them most, as they are constantly exposed to people who might or already do carry the virus.

The latest recommendations, however, list any kind of facial covering, including homemade cloth masks and bandanas. They concede that such barriers might not offer significant protection for the wearer, but they can trap any droplets of water or mucus the wearer might emit in a cough or sneeze.

“So it’s not going to protect you, but it is going to protect your neighbor,” Dr. Daniel Griffin, an expert in infectious diseases at Columbia University, told NPR last week in explaining the rationale. “If your neighbor is wearing a mask and the same thing happens, they’re going to protect you. So masks worn properly have the potential to benefit people.”

The key is to wear them properly, and remember that they trap, rather than eliminate, potentially harmful molecules. Thus, they must be discarded after a couple of hours or washed frequently.

In the end, residents should acknowledge the severity of the health risks that prompted such extreme measures as threatening criminal penalties, and either cover their faces or stay inside.