Amid the pandemic, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has avoided the heavy hammer of punitive action for those who flout new rules during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s opted instead for a simple appeal: Please wear a mask and social-distance because it is the right thing to do.
No citations for unveiled joggers and cyclists. No tickets for folks ignoring physical distancing guidelines. While the city has asked residents to stay indoors between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. since early April, the curfew continues to be a request, with no punitive fines for lack of compliance. Boston’s construction suspension carried no fines for those who did not comply, although city authorities did stop work at scores of sites that were flouting the rules.
While other locales have announced punishments for people failing to adhere to pandemic rules, Walsh has refused to do so.
“I honestly think it’s incumbent upon people to take responsibility for their actions,” said Walsh at a Thursday press briefing.
The mayor alluded to an incident last month in Philadelphia, where police dragged a man not wearing a mask off a bus.
“I’m not going to do that,” Walsh said.
Some scholars suggest that Walsh’s appeal to the public’s better nature is an effective approach. Dozens of academics published a paper in a research journal in late April that wrangles with a question at the heart of trying to mitigate coronavirus’s spread: How do you get the masses to accept and adopt a slew of behaviors that, a few months ago, would have been considered abnormal?
“Leaders who threaten people with sanctions as a way to deter undesired behaviour may make people feel distrusted and paradoxically reduce their willingness to do as they are told," the scholars wrote in the paper. "Leaders and authorities who treat people with respect, and who communicate that they trust people to do as they are told, tend to be more successful in eliciting cooperation.”
One of the paper’s coauthors, Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, said in an e-mail this week that guidelines that are communicated clearly and treat people with respect help avoid backlash that comes with harsh enforcement. Van Bavel, citing polls, said the “vast majority” of the public “have positive attitudes towards face masks and physical distancing.”
“Based on the behavioral science literature, it sounds like the approach in Boston might be fairly effective,” said Van Bavel.
He noted that if Boston experiences a huge spike in cases, that authorities may change their tune. Asked Thursday if he would change tack if there was a surge in cases, Walsh said, “I can’t predict the future.”
Leo Beletsky, a public health policy researcher at Northeastern University, said there were fines and penalties, including prison, for people who did not comply with orders for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed tens of millions worldwide. The effectiveness of such measures in combating that crisis was unclear to Beletsky, who said such evaluations were not made at that time.
Today, law enforcement administering penalties for physical distancing or mask-wearing would disproportionately affect “over-policed communities,” he said.
"That’s just the reality of how our society is structured,” he said.
Beletsky thought it was important for leaders to provide people with accurate, nonsensational, and nonstigmatizing information and then design systems where it’s “easier to do the things you want them to do.”
“Unfortunately a lot of times we do tend to default to the punitive approach,” said Beletsky.
Mina Cikara, a psychology professor at Harvard University who was among the authors of the April paper that focused on managing the pandemic, said in an e-mail that generally, behavioral neuroscience studies indicate that if you want people to do something, positive reinforcement is more effective in motivating behavior than punishment.
“So I think the mayor is right not to impose punishment such as fines on, for example, mask-shirkers (much as I’d like to see it myself),” Cikara said in the e-mail. “Instead, we should be seeking to reinforce people who are taking preventive measures.”
Brenda Bond-Fortier, a professor of public administration at Suffolk University, said consistent messaging that conveys the seriousness of the situation would be a crucial aspect of any pandemic response.
“If you start to hammer down on people using the legal or criminal justice system you’ll create animosity, unnecessarily,” she said. “Now if people are behaving in a way that is threatening other people, you can always fall back on those type of practices.”
Locally, some municipalities announced fines for noncompliance of COVID-related mandates in recent weeks. Cambridge and Somerville, for instance, both issued directives stating that those who flout mask rules could be punished by up to $300 tickets. However, authorities in both communities said Thursday that no fines have been issued to date.
Governor Charlie Baker’s order in early May requires people to cover their nose and mouth if they can’t maintain a 6-foot distance from others in any “place open to the public,” with some exceptions.
Those who don’t follow the protocol can face fines up to $300 under the order, but enforcement has been largely left to local officials, who until Baker’s mandate had issued a patchwork of rules for face coverings throughout the state, some of which carried the potential for far heftier penalties.
A State Police spokesman also said Thursday that troopers have not issued any citations for lack of masks in public nor have they cited anyone for gatherings at beaches, parks, or other public places.
Police did clear Rice’s Beach in Beverly after a large crowd of teens and families packed themselves onto the sand over the course of Wednesday morning, Mayor Mike Cahill said in a statement.
More stringent measures have been undertaken elsewhere in the world.
During a lockdown in China, residents in the city of Wuhan, which was an epicenter of the outbreak, could leave their homes only to buy food or attend to other tasks deemed absolutely necessary, according to the Associated Press. Some were allowed to leave the city during the lockdown, but only if they had paperwork showing they were not a health risk and a letter attesting to where they were going and why, the AP reported.
In France earlier this year, authorities said they would issue pandemic-related fines of up to the equivalent of about $150, and that 100,000 officers were being deployed to enforce new measures to curb social contact, the BBC reported.
During a strict lockdown in New Zealand, police had the power to stop people who were in public and ask them why they were out, and those who were breaking the rules could be charged and arrested, according to The New Zealand Herald. That outlet reported on April 9 that 61 people had been prosecuted and more than 400 warned for breaching that lockdown as of that date.
Boston has not gone that route. Instead, Walsh has implored people — over and over again — to do things like wash their hands and avoid gatherings. Earlier this week, he ended a press conference with a seasonal instruction.
“Enjoy the day, it’s a beautiful day,” he said. “Stay off the beach.”
Jeremiah Manion, Travis Andersen, and Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report.