Palo Alto will require everyone to wear face coverings when entering businesses, stores, health care facilities or taking public transportation under a law that the City Council passed on Monday night.
The law, which the council unanimously approved, also applies to people going to work, preparing or selling food and walking through building common areas such as hallways, stairways, elevators and parking facilities. It does not apply to people out for a walk or engaging in exercise activities such as running or biking.
In adopting the law, the council joined a handful of other Bay Area cities that have adopted local laws that exceed Santa Clara County's regulations. San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and San Francisco counties require face coverings, with violations punishable as misdemeanors. Santa Clara County has stopped short of making them a requirement but is "strongly recommending" their use.
Dr. Sara Cody, the county's health officer, had said that she believes an order to wear face coverings would be difficult to enforce and that she believes people will wear them voluntarily.
In adopting the new requirement, Palo Alto is following the lead of Cupertino, Fremont and Milpitas, all of which had recently adopted their own local orders requiring a face covering. In each case, a failure to wear a mask can result in an administrative citation.
The proposal to require masks was championed by Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who argued last week and again on Monday that the Santa Clara County order hasn't gone far enough. Councilwoman Lydia Kou agreed and suggested that requiring face coverings could help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"We have seen gatherings in parks, especially on weekends, whenever the weather is nice. … If they're going to be sitting in parks or going to open spaces or have gatherings, then they need to have their masks on. Because this is exactly how it will be transmitted," Kou said.
While the council was unanimous, the public was split on the issue. Some called the measure reasonable while others suggested it's unnecessary.
"Since the County doesn't require masks in public, I really wonder why the City Council thinks they know better?" resident Tim Diebert asked in an email. "What science is this being based on?"
Santa Clara County already requires masks for people who visit "essential businesses," Diebert noted. And when he is out doing errands, the very few people who are out are already maintaining the county order, he wrote.
Matt Smuts, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, said he was concerned about "the image of faith communities leading worship online with face masks on."
"Seems it might cause people to be additionally alarmed," Smuts told the council Monday. "I'm wondering if this would be beneficial to helping people be calm at a time of shelter-in-place. I'm wondering if this might be too broad a blanket."
But resident Nancy Wagner said she believes a local mask mandate is warranted. She said during a recent visit to House of Bagels, she found employees were not wearing masks. When she asked the manager about it, he told her that masks were "optional."
"Basically not required, so they're not bothering. … I understand that Santa Clara County has made face masks optional, but the city of Palo Alto can do better," Wagner wrote.
The council's vote authorizes City Manager Ed Shikada to issue an order on Tuesday mandating face coverings, which can be found here. The order will take effect on Wednesday, City Attorney Molly Stump said. (The city issued a press release Tuesday stating the order would take effect at noon on May 13.) Both Stump and Shikada warned, however, that the city does not have the resources to enforce the ban.
Stump urged the council to "be realistic" about the new mandate.
"This is an issue that people in the community should be talking to each other about," Stump said. "Because we don't have sufficient city staff to be responding to little gatherings as they occur, this really needs to be an effort around education through our communication channels and between community members and neighbors talking to each other."
Even without strict enforcement, the law will allow community members to tell others, "This is the law. You need to obey it," Shikada said.
"The social pressure is what will make this most effective," Shikada said.
Find comprehensive coverage of the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.