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State Mask Laws: A Summary

Adult women men children Diverse crowd of people wearing medical masks pattern background. Protection and precention coronavirus infection. Map of USA Line drawing doodle vector illustration poster
By Richard Dahl on August 21, 2020

Contemplating face-mask laws in the U.S. can be a dizzying exercise.

Many states require masks and some don't. And if states do require them, what does it mean? Who must wear the masks and where must they wear them? Who is exempt?

If there was one nationwide federal order that applied to every citizen, it would be much easier. But of course there isn't, and there are Constitutional reasons for that. Under the 10th Amendment, states have the primary power to deal with the spread of diseases within their borders.

Technically, the federal government could issue a nationwide mask mandate; but as the federal Congressional Research Service concluded in a recent legal analysis, neither the executive branch nor Congress have enforcement powers. And as that analysis concluded, “(E)nforcing mask mandates has been a challenge even for states, which can leverage their state and local law enforcement apparatus to enforce such mandates."

So, to get a handle on the maze of mask mandates out there, we have no choice but to do it on a state-by-state basis.

The Lay of the Land

With Mississippi's passage of a statewide face-mask mandate on Aug. 4, a total of 34 states plus the District of Columbia now require the wearing of face masks in public.

While the remaining 16 states have not issued mandates, most have various advisories that encourage masks in public or allow municipalities to issue stricter rules.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which offers a comprehensive state-by-state roundup, summarizes the mask-mandate states this way: “(T)hey require masks in indoor public spaces such as restaurants and stores, on public transit and ride-hailing services, and outdoors when unable to maintain a distance of 6 feet from others."

Those are the elements that are common in mask-mandate states, but how do they differ? Making our way through AARP's list and the state orders themselves, we've picked out a few areas for closer inspection.

  • Age requirements. All states exempt children, but the ages vary. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, only children under age 2 are exempt. In Delaware, that age is 12.
  • Business requirements. In Washington state, businesses are required to deny entrance to unmasked visitors, and most employees are required to wear masks. In Pennsylvania, masks are required for employees, while customers of “essential services" are required to be masked. Meanwhile, some non-mandate states do have limited requirements. Non-mandate Nebraska, for instance, requires staff and patrons at barber shops, salons, and personal-care businesses to be masked. And no matter what a state's rules are on face masks, businesses everywhere have the right to require them — just as they have a right to require shirts and shoes.
  • Penalties. Massachusetts' order specifies a $300 fine for offenders. Violation of Michigan's face-mask order is misdemeanor subject to a $500 fine. Some cities and counties, meanwhile, are taking a harder line. People who are not properly masked are subject to $1,000 fines in Talbot County, Maryland; Laredo, Texas; and Nashua, New Hampshire, among others.
  • Exemptions. People with medical conditions are typically exempted if a mask interferes with breathing. Some, like Alabama, exempt people exercising in gyms as long as they maintain social distancing. Arkansas exempts people taking part in religious services, although facial coverings are encouraged. Indiana exempts people who are “experiencing homelessness."

Meanwhile, in the No-Mandate States…

Even though 16 states lack mask requirements, many have taken steps to encourage mask use. Utah has a program to provide free masks to people who want them. In no-mandate New Hampshire, people in gatherings of 100 or more are required to wear masks.

Also, many of those states allow municipalities to require face masks, and many have done so. In no-mandate Missouri, for instance, Kansas City and St. Louis require them. In no-mandate Nebraska, Lincoln and Omaha do.

Governors in a couple of no-mandate states, however, have taken a hard line on municipal exclusions. One of them, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, battled openly with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the issue, filing suit against the city. On Aug. 13, however, he dropped the lawsuit and allowed Atlanta and other cities that have 100 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people to require masks in public if they choose.

A similar fight is currently brewing in Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds claims that municipalities lack the power to require masks. Several Iowa cities, however, are moving to defy Reynolds.

To find what the face-mask rules may or may not be in your state, the AARP site listed above contains links to state rules, orders, and other information.

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