Albany police using mask ordinance as educational opportunity

Albany Police Department Chief Michael Persley

ALBANY — A face mask ordinance that was controversial in its passing has proven not to be so much so in enforcement as law enforcement officers have been transformed into the “mask police.”

Through the more than four months of the ordinance, narrowly passed in early September by the Albany City Commission, there have been a few citations issued for violations, according to Albany Police Department Chief Michael Persley.

Actually, officers are not on the prowl looking for maskless individuals, and most people seem to be complying voluntarily.

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“We’re going out speaking to people when we encounter them on calls for service,” Persley said. “In other words, we’re not taking folks to jail for not wearing a mask.”

Instead of making the ordinance an enforcement issue, officers have embarked on an educational and service campaign. When they encounter individuals not wearing a mask in the regular course of duty, officers ask them to don a face covering and provide one if needed.

The Albany City Commission approved the mask ordinance in a 4-3 vote after 6 1/2 hours of debate over two days, during which the public was given the opportunity to speak. Proponents and opponents of the ordinance spoke on the topic.

The measure was made possible by an order from Gov. Brian Kemp issued in August, and is only enforceable when the rate of infection in a community is greater than 100 per 100,000 in population, meaning it was not in effect during the time the number is below that threshold.

During the most recent call for infection rates by elected officials and the medical community, the rate for the 14-day period ending Jan. 16 was at more than 780 per 100,000 in population.

Since the Thanksgiving holiday, there has been a spike in cases that filled Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital’s intensive care units and an increase in deaths of residents in southwest Georgia.

The governor’s order allows businesses that choose to do so to opt out by placing signage at their establishments informing the public that masks are not required inside. Police have basically left enforcement at businesses up to the owners.

Persley said that to his knowledge there have been no calls from a business reporting a situation in which a customer refused to wear a mask where one was required. There also has not been a rash of calls from members of the public reporting others for not wearing masks.

“It’s a public education (effort), and we want everybody to be as safe as possible — wear masks, social distance when possible,” Persley said. “We just want people to protect themselves. Whatever people can do to protect themselves, protect others, we strongly encourage it.”

As he has on several occasions, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler displayed a slide showing the proper wearing of masks during a news conference with community leaders.

As of Thursday, the coroner had recorded 235 deaths of county residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and the pace had picked up with 11 of those deaths coming in the previous six days.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing face coverings in public, among measures meant to prevent the spread of the virus. Masks should cover the mouth and nose to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets released when people cough, sneeze or simply breathe in close proximity to others.

The Albany medical community, as have medical experts across the country, also has endorsed face coverings as a way to slow the spread — and help reduce the burden on the overwhelmed hospital system — of infection in the community.

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