As New Mexico struggles to enforce a face mask requirement during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some of its elected leaders have been less than ideal role models.
State Sen. Greg Baca did not wear a face covering during the five-day special legislative session last month, and Sen. Cliff Pirtle rarely put one on. Both are Republicans, but even Democratic senators became lax about covering up at times.
Pirtle’s defiance has continued since then. After Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced two weeks ago the state would begin enforcing mask-wearing, the Roswell Republican said right away he wouldn’t comply.
“I will not be wearing a mask,” Pirtle wrote on Facebook. “Where do I pick up my fine?”
The individual challenges to the public health order — particularly from a few legislators — highlight the continuing challenges of enforcing compliance when not everyone in the state agrees with the requirement. They also raise questions about role modeling at a time when the act of wearing a mask is seen by some as the mark of what an individual believes about the pandemic.
The issue drifts through locales and high-profile offices far from the Roundhouse.
Some sheriff’s offices, such as Bernalillo County’s, have said they won’t enforce the order and will instead refer cases to the state police and state Department of Health. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office has said each deputy may decide whether to issue mask citations or not, but the office hasn’t issued any so far.
These sheriff’s offices are eschewing the order even as Lujan Grisham’s office sent a directive to all local law enforcement agencies instructing them to enforce it. Violations are petty misdemeanors punishable by a fine of up to $100 or imprisonment for a period of up to six months, the directive says.
Whether people in positions of authority obey the mask order can have a significant impact on how the rest of the state responds to the instruction. Though his department hadn’t issued citations as of late last week, Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said the fact his deputies wear face coverings helps encourage members of the public to do so as well.
“I think when they realize that we’re doing our part to protect the public, we’re setting the example,” Mendoza said.
Conversely, those who don’t wear masks can influence people as well, and that may be the case of some members of the state Senate.
While Lujan Grisham had not yet issued her enforcement order during last month’s legislative session, the Senate Rules Committee met to draft new coronavirus-related procedures that included a requirement that all senators wear a mask.
“The presiding officer shall ensure that each member wear a mask that covers the mouth and nose while on the floor or in committee,” the new rule stated.
Both Baca and Pirtle sit on that committee and participated in the debate preceding the rule change, yet they still didn’t wear masks themselves on the Senate floor.
“I didn’t read it that way,” Baca, R-Belen, said when asked why he didn’t follow the Senate rule.
When read the Senate rule verbatim, Baca said it was the chamber president’s obligation to ensure senators put on the coverings, and the rule didn’t have a real enforcement mechanism.
“I hadn’t been approached by anybody on it at all,” he said. “There was no enforcement mechanism in place at the time, which means it’s a suggestion, not a rule.”
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who is president of the Senate and its presiding officer when he’s present in the chamber, said he didn’t speak with Baca about masks during the session.
“We spoke at times but didn’t specifically speak about wearing the mask,” Morales said.
The lieutenant governor said he was “disappointed” in Baca’s response when the senator was asked why he kept his face uncovered.
“I think that’s irresponsible and I thought it was reckless, but that’s something that he’s going to have to explain to the voters of his counties that he serves,” Morales said.
Morales did say he spoke with Pirtle about putting his mask on and repeatedly reminded the entire Senate through his microphone to wear face coverings and maintain social-distancing measures.
It wasn’t just Baca and Pirtle who needed reminders. Other Republican and Democratic senators also had lapses in their mask-wearing and came within 6 feet of one another at times during the session, particularly during long debates on the floor.
Morales also said there ultimately was no enforcement mechanism at the time, and he didn’t want to throw senators out of the session because that would disenfranchise voters from their districts.
“I felt that for the most part the senators did a good job wearing their masks,” Morales said.
Pirtle said Wednesday he has kept his promise not to wear a mask, except when he enters businesses because they can be fined for letting customers enter without face coverings.
He said he disagrees with the order and called his pledge not to follow it an act of “civil disobedience.”
“I think the way it was put out is the wrong way to lead,” Pirtle said. “To dictate to people is wrong, but I think the way it’s been handled is a way that causes resistance.”
For his part, Baca said he doesn’t believe masks are an effective way of stopping the spread of COVID-19, even though U.S. health authorities recommend it.
“I don’t believe in the science behind it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t believe the consensus on the masks is established, and I don’t believe they’re effective.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that “people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when around people outside of their household.”
“Wearing a cloth face covering will help protect people around you, including those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and workers who frequently come into close contact with other people,” the CDC says on its website.
As for enforcement, an issue even Lujan Grisham admits is a thorny one for state leaders, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office originally said it would only encourage people to wear masks and would not issue citations. But Mendoza has since changed his office’s policy.
“We’ll leave the discretion to the deputy on a case-by-case basis,” Mendoza said. “We are asking for voluntary compliance. We have a lot of other priorities in public safety right now.”