On Wednesday, it became official: Massachusetts residents under an emergency order from Governor Charlie Baker must wear face masks in public if they can’t distance themselves from others, or risk fines of up to $300.
But would they fall in line?
The universe quickly set about testing our collective resolve, with the morning offering blue skies, modestly warm temperatures, and the palpable temptation of fresh air.
But according to a series of (admittedly unscientific) observations by Globe reporters around the Boston area, a clear majority appeared to be following the rule.
People sported various coverings, including colorful bandanas, hand-sewn cotton-and-elastic affairs, disposable surgical masks, and professional gear meant for medical or industrial use.
Some overachievers were even wearing masks inside their cars, or for the 20-foot walk between the front door of their apartment building and the garbage bins. And nearly everyone seemed to be making at least some effort to keep a safe distance from others by, for example, stepping into the street if others approached on the sidewalk.
A significant number of residents, however, were spotted flouting the new requirement — some rather unapologetically.
“[Expletive] off!” a man walking near Maverick Square in East Boston snarled after a reporter asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask as he walked in close proximity to other pedestrians. “Mind your own [expletive] business!"
He wasn’t alone. Nearby, a group of men without face coverings stood in a circle, talking and smoking cigarettes; across the street, an older woman lugging several heavy bags of groceries huffed and puffed with her face exposed, a mask hanging uselessly from a strap around her neck; and two mask-free rollerbladers engaged in a breathless conversation whizzed by at high speed.
One jogger without a mask claimed he had already had COVID-19, but agreed that runners seemed more likely than others to go without a mask.
In fact, scofflaws can be found practically everywhere one looks. That’s a cause of concern for those on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“Having seen all the sick people . . . who are not very old at all, I feel like it’s really important to wear a mask," Kathy Onorato, a 55-year-old ICU nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, said Wednesday afternoon as she sat in Cambridge’s North Point. "I know it’s difficult, it’s challenging — I wear a mask for 12 hours while I work — but I think especially when people are in close contact, and certainly when they’re inside in public places, they need to wear a mask for now.”
Still, Onorato said, people who don’t wear masks shouldn’t face harsh punishment or be ridiculed, even though it may be the wrong decision.
“I understand it’s hard for some people, and I understand it’s not easy. I don’t think you can judge other people necessarily on what they’re doing,” she said. “You just have to hope that everyone is safe and that everyone cares about everybody else."
While failing to wear a mask around others in public can bring significant fines, many local police departments said Wednesday that they would enforce the order through gentler means.
In Worcester, officers will hand out masks to violators, while Springfield officials said they would issue $50 citations only to repeat offenders. Police in Quincy, meanwhile, plan to simply inform residents of the policy and ask them to wear masks.
A number of municipalities had required masks even before Baker’s order, including Brookline, where nearly all the pedestrians in busy Washington Square were covering their faces around lunchtime Wednesday.
For some reluctant mask-stragglers, though, the new statewide rule and the threat of fines prompted them to finally cover up. Adam Rowton, 23, who was jogging in Brookline, was one of them.
“It’s bad to inhale your expired air, and it’s even worse when your heart rate is elevated and you’re breathing heavier," Rowton said from behind a red bandana, explaining why he previously had run without a covering. “I’m hoping [the bandana] will block particles from my breath enough for someone I come close to, but also allow fresh air to be drawn back in.”
Many residents said they had noticed a steady increase in the number of people wearing masks in their neighborhoods. For most, with anxieties about the pandemic running high, that’s a welcome trend.
“Simply put, I feel that it’s smart for our city, and I’ve been one of the individuals who has been wearing it prior to [Baker’s order],” said Charlestown resident Sarah Matuza, 40. “I’ve noticed an increase in folks wearing it, in terms of whining when I pass by, and anything we can do to help I think is the smart thing to do.”
Travis Anderson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.