The Town of New Castle is prepared to make the wearing of face masks mandatory, which may make it the first municipality in the state to approve such a law.
On July 14, the board will hold a public hearing on a proposed local law that will require masks on public and private property as well in places of business in most situations.
Each violator would be subject to fines of up to $250 for the first offense and up to $500 for each subsequent offense.
Town Board members approved a resolution Friday morning that immediately requires masks or face coverings for anyone on town property, such as parks and Town Hall, if unable to socially distance.
The action comes a week after a cluster of COVID-19 cases was traced to the June 20 Horace Greeley High School graduation and a non-school sponsored gathering afterwards, triggering at least 19 infections. Town officials have noted that complaints and concerns have continued to be reported.
If enacted, it is believed that it would be the first measure of its kind by any municipality in the state, said Supervisor Ivy Pool.
“This could have happened anywhere,” Pool said of the cluster of cases. “The county executive was right about that. But it didn’t just happen anywhere; it happened here in New Castle. We’re community leaders committed to action and unwilling to accept inaction. We’re not perfect but we must strive to be better and to do better.”
Pool said the goal of the legislation is not to issue summonses, generate revenue for the town or publicly shame violators but to ensure compliance for the sake of public health.
“We need to take those steps and we need to make those provisions and institute the laws that will keep us all safe going forward,” said Deputy Supervisor Jeremy Saland.
Under the proposed law, if town police officers observe a violation, they would be able to issue a summons similar to a traffic stop, said Town Attorney Nicholas Ward-Willis.
There is a list of exemptions, he said. Those include children under two years old or those unable to medically tolerate a face covering; people from the same household who are together or if people are able to successfully maintain at least six feet of separation from others; campers pursuant to the interim guidance for child care and day camp programs during the public health emergency; those receiving oral care; drivers traveling alone or in a vehicle with members of their own household; those participating in a sport or recreational activity until they cease that activity; people eating or drinking when seated; and first responders when it’s not practical or in the midst of responding to an emergency.
Earlier this week, Pool and Police Chief James Carroll warned residents in an e-mail that the town would step up enforcement of social distancing protocols and potentially be more aggressive in handing out summonses.
Ward-Willis said that while Carroll did cite offenses such as disorderly conduct and violations of public health law, which could trigger fines, there were some questions about whether that would stand up if challenged regarding face masks and social distancing. Therefore, a local law requiring a face covering would be stronger.
“We felt it was much better to avoid those potential situations and just inject clarity,” Ward-Willis said.
Until June 13 when an archaic state law that had outlawed the use of face masks in public was repealed, there was no legal mechanism for a municipality to require they be worn, Ward-Willis said. But with the repeal of that law three weeks ago, local governments are now free to introduce and approve their own legislation.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April signed an executive order urging that masks be worn but there was no enforcement mechanism, he added.
Despite the intent to protect public health and safety, Councilman Jason Lichtenthal was skeptical whether the law would have its desired effect.
“I do not have faith that this will modify anyone’s behavior,” Lichtenthal said. “Over the course of the last three and a half, four months, and especially over the course of the last two to three weeks, I think our town has proven it will have no impact.”
But Saland responded that the opposite could occur, suggesting that other municipalities could follow suit.
“We are going to lead the way, to make people accountable, specifically for not wearing a mask within six feet,” he said.
The law would be enforceable until the end of a local, state or national emergency related to a pandemic or public health issue.