A new state initiative that will slap people who violate coronavirus mask and gathering orders with fines of up to $500 is slated to start Tuesday but with details still scant, there is growing concern the program could do more harm than good in the hard-hit communities it’s intended to help.
“At a time when my community has 26% unemployment and folks can’t pay their rent and are facing challenges from a financial standpoint, another burden could be difficult,” Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo said of the fines. “To start fining a punitive amount of money and doling out this kind of enforcement — the details need to be figured out.”
Revere is among a number of Massachusetts cities and towns struggling to extinguish coronavirus hotspots as their positive test rates remain high. The 14-day average positive test rate in Revere, Brockton and Lynn is over 5% — more than three times the statewide average, according to public health data.
A review of the data shows there are 17 communities in Massachusetts with at least 50 positive cases with positive test rates higher than 3% — a threshold Gov. Charlie Baker identified as concerning when he placed restrictions on Rhode Island travelers last week as the state’s test rate ticked up.
Baker last week announced a multi-agency squad to help increase enforcement of coronavirus-era mandates requiring people to wear masks and limit gathering sizes and coordinate local interventions in communities labeled as “higher-risk” due to their numbers of new cases and percentages of positive tests. Targeted inspections could result in fines of up to $500 per violation of new rules starting Tuesday that limit outdoor gatherings to 50 people and require face coverings for gatherings of more than 10.
Zane Crute, president of the NAACP-Mystic Valley Area Branch, called the measures a “double-edged sword.” Many of the communities facing outbreaks are home to larger than average low-income and minority populations, something Crute said should be considered.
“It has to be done in a way where police are not aggressively harassing communities. Whenever we give police more power, it can get out of control,” Crute said. “But my concerns are just policing in general — we don’t want to be disproportionately fining and locking up communities of color … and we don’t want to be targeting people who already can’t afford food and giving them fines.”
Arrigo said he hopes giving “teeth” to enforce state orders around masks and gathering sizes can help drive down cases in Everett, where 1,894 residents had contracted the virus as of Aug. 5. But he said the state should look to balance punitive fines with outreach.
“We need to do whatever we can do to get the message across … hopefully without penalizing people too harshly — there’s a sweet spot there,” Arrigo said.
Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria agreed in a statement saying, “The intent is not to give out fines, but rather have those gathering in large groups wear face coverings to stop the spread.”
Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan however said “it is not a lot to ask people to wear a mask.”
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