Mask Mandates

Mask On, Mask Off: New York Trying Everything Except Not Telling People What To Do

Mayor Eric Adams frets that COVID-19 masks are making it too easy for shoplifters to evade facial recognition.


New Yorkers can be forgiven for losing track of just when they should and should not wear (questionably effective) face masks, at least in the eyes of the entity that taxes their paychecks, regulates their businesses, and polices their compliance.

After all, the masking requirement in New York City health care facilities was lifted only last month. Public transportation mandates lasted until a half-year ago. Kids between the ages of 24 and 59 months were required by law to have their mouths and noses covered in congregate settings as recently as last June; their older K-12 siblings were only released from the rule three months prior to that. One year plus one week ago, any business found having an unvaccinated employee or customer not wearing a mask was subject to a $1,000 fine.

Even though the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available to everyone aged 5 and up beginning in November 2021, the main nonpharmaceutical intervention intended to bridge the gap between pandemic onset and inoculation remained stubbornly if haphazardly in place for months after, particularly in polities dominated by elected Democrats.

So it cannot quite count as a surprise that New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Monday once again thrust the public sector's nose into the private choice of whether to wear a face covering.

"We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops—do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask," Adams said (emphasis mine) on AM 1010 WINS, in response to a question about increased shoplifting. "Once they're inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so. But we need to use the technology we have available to identify those shoplifters and those who are committing serious crimes. When you see these mask-wearing people, oftentimes it's not about being fearful of the pandemic, it's fearful of the police catching them for their deeds, and we're really putting the call out."

Adams, who was elected amid a backlash against rising public disorder, pandemic-era school restrictions, and an economy battered by COVID-related disruptions, was quick to stress that his anti-masking exhortation was a recommendation and not a requirement. Ditto NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey: "We are asking the businesses to make this a condition of entry, that people when they come in, they show their face, they should identify themselves," Maddrey said at a press conference last week. "We need our businesses to be proactive and do their due diligence. We need to make sure people are identifying themselves."

It makes sense for local cops to be against masks—they certainly haven't been wearing the things much, even back when it was mandatory, and New York is already the most video-surveilled metropolis in the country. No doubt city officials would love it if every corner store instituted no-mask entry, installed facial recognition software, and shared the results promiscuously with law enforcement. At a time when petty but visible property theft continues to rise, even as the 2020–21 violent crime spike subsides, the NYPD is no doubt eager for some public relations wins.

But masking off so soon after masking on threatens to extend, not end, the types of Democratic dysfunction that helped elect Adams and also flip NYC-adjacent congressional districts—and therefore partisan control of the House of Representatives—to the GOP. Sure, voters are sick of watching bodega assault videos and subway violence on the local news every night, but seesawing arbitrarily between policy extremes inspires neither confidence in authority nor predictability in civic life.

The Washington Post published an attempted scare-story Wednesday about public health agencies and government executives being "stripped…of their powers" to impose pandemic restrictions. "Health officials and governors in more than half the country are now restricted from issuing mask mandates, ordering school closures and imposing other protective measures or must seek permission from their state legislatures before renewing emergency orders," the paper lamented. Added Marquette Law School professor Edward Fallone: "Masking requirements, vaccine requirements, school closures are completely off the table without new legislation." Said like it was a bad thing.

Replacing force-backed, arbitrary masking restrictionism with heavily recommended arbitrary anti-masking restrictionism may change one policy in a direction I prefer, but it doubles down on a process I abhor. Which is: The public health regime, and "the science" behind it, is whatever the apex political authority says it is. Change the management, change the policy. That's not reform; it's a zag instead of a zig. The other half of the country has it right—give politicians less power, give the people more.

The enforcement whiplash, too, can degrade respect and contribute to uncertainty. Twelve years ago, 50,000 otherwise suspicionless New Yorkers per year were being rung up on low-level marijuana charges after being stopped, questioned, and frisked by cops; now teenagers openly smoke joints on subway cars. Three years ago you couldn't buy a flavored nicotine cartridge in the city's then-dwindling number of vape stores; now you can't sneeze without your droplets hitting a new bodega window display of fanciful water pipes, with potent over-the-counter gummies sold routinely to the obviously underage.

New York politicians, city and state, are forever making normal adult things illegal in one breath, while telling cops and courts to deprioritize enforcement in the next. In an exuberantly commercial city, that combination is a recipe for gray markets (typically transacted in eminently robbable cash) and the twin scourges of selective policing and corruption.

You would think that the city of Eric Garner, pinball prohibition, and a recent mayor so nannyish that he tried to criminalize transfats, would at some point conclude that maybe the civic order might better be served by allowing adults to legally make their own choices, and tasking cops and prosecutors with fighting a more limited number of crimes that have actual victims. Like, you know, shoplifting.

But New York politicians do love their press conferences, their ribbon cuttings, their weekly spots on local broadcast media, each of which is a fresh opportunity to announce some new public campaign telling individuals and businesses what they should and potentially must do. In this way mayors and governors and police chiefs and health commissioners can generate headlines and give off the impression that they're doing something about the things that make taxpaying residents grumpy.

These are the personality-driven New York political values that for a century have produced a base level of governing dysfunction only sporadically relieved by competence. Adams was supposed to be a reactive agent against that rotted host, but the best you can say about him so far is that he's using the same bad tools somewhat better. Until he or his successor or Gov. Kathy Hochul or (God forbid!) a relevant legislature takes a machete to the thicket of mandates that make complying with, let alone enforcing, the law an exercise in randomness and knowing the right people, Gotham will likely continue its greasy skid.