The first batch of face mask fines have been doled out in Miami-Dade, with the $100 citations issued everywhere from grocery stores to barber shops and country clubs.
One Wawa gas station in Kendall was a particular hot spot for either scofflaws or enthusiastic enforcement, with eight citations over two days, according to Miami-Dade Police Department records of the 162 citations issued so far for people caught in public violating the county’s mandatory mask order.
The mask has become a political symbol across the country, with protesters dismissing mask orders as an infringement on personal freedom — despite the advice of public health experts and clear scientific evidence that they can help reduce infections from COVID-19, a virus spread by respiratory droplets.
But three of the people in Miami-Dade contacted by the Herald who got mask tickets said they were in full support of social distancing rules and masks. In fact, they said they were even either wearing one or holding one when they got fined, which they’re not particularly happy about.
On July 17, Johanna Gianni said she had just finished shopping at a Publix in North Miami Beach and was walking back to her car when she took off the face mask she had worn inside the store. Almost immediately, a police officer came up to her and told her she was getting a ticket for not wearing a mask in a public space.
Despite showing the officer she had a mask in her hand, Gianni still got the citation. She says it felt like a set-up to catch shoppers after they followed the rules where it really mattered, inside the grocery. The parking lot was nearly empty, she said, and no one was around her when she took the mask off. .
The $100 fine for Gianni was part of a COVID-19 ordinance announced by Miami-Dade County on July 16. The fine is given to those who do not follow the “New Normal Guidelines,” which include mandatory and proper mask wearing in both indoor and outdoor public spaces. If someone can’t pay the fine, they can do community service instead. If a business violates the ordinance, the owner faces a $500 fine.
As of Tuesday, civil citations have been given to 104 individuals and to 58 business owners in the time since the ordinance was announced, said Miami-Dade Police spokesperson Alvaro Zabaleta.
Before the ordinance took effect, breaking any emergency order was punishable as a misdemeanor crime. In fact, police can still charge rule-breakers criminally with fines up to $500 and 180 days in jail.
Zabaleta said the civil fine is a new “tool” for officers to use to prevent criminalizing people, while still enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for those who disobey the mask rules.
“Our intentions are basically to get a strong message of the importance of wearing these masks, the importance of social distancing, the importance of following the CDC guidelines, the importance of listening to the emergency orders,” Zabaleta said.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a press release he has been stressing how important masks and social distancing are “for months.”
“MDPD had jurisdiction to enforce these orders in commercial businesses, but far too many individuals acted as if the New Normal rules did not apply to them,” Gimenez said, “which led to a surge in infection rates.”
Gianni, who was ticketed outside of a supermarket, isn’t the only person who felt they were unfairly given a ticket.
Ronald Setoute was in a barber shop on July 17 in North Miami waiting for his turn to get a haircut when he says he pulled the face mask he was wearing down to his chin to take a drink of water.
Just at that moment, a police officer walked in and told him he was wearing his mask incorrectly and wrote him up for a $100 fine. Setoute tried to explain he understood the mask laws, but he said the officer did not care. His friends in the shop found the incident amusing; Setoute was usually the one following social distancing guidelines religiously.
“There are too many people on the street walking without masks,” Setoute said. “I’m okay with the law, 100 percent. I’m always the one worried with everyone else.”
Meanwhile, on the same day at a different barber shop in Golden Glades, Mathias Casseus was cutting a customer’s hair and had his mask pulled down so his nose poked out. An officer then came into All Styles Barber Shop and gave him a ticket for wearing his mask wrong.
Casseus said he thought the ticket was unfair, as he could have been given a warning first by the cop to put his mask on properly.
Gianni said she understands the purpose of the fine, but thinks it should only be given to people who are actually putting others at risk in crowded areas. Like Casseus, she also thinks Miami-Dade officers should give someone a warning when first caught violating the mask rules, like cops have been doing in Texas.
She also thinks there should have been better public messaging about the fine being in effect, as it had only been announced the day prior to her receiving a ticket and she was not aware of it.
“I think they should make a judgment call,” Gianni said. “If you’re in the middle of a crowd and you’re walking without a mask, I get it. But if I’m walking back to my car in a semi-empty parking lot, I think you could cut me some slack.”