San Francisco to Enforce Face Mask Requirement as Bay Area Strengthens Mandates

San Francisco commuters wear masks as they wait for their Muni bus on April 6, 2020. The city will begin requiring face coverings on public transit and at all essential businesses starting late Friday night. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

All San Francisco residents and workers will soon be required to wear face coverings at grocery stores, medical offices and other essential businesses and on public transit as part of the city's increasingly aggressive efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Face coverings will also be required while waiting in line for any essential service, and while waiting for public transit.

The order, which Mayor London Breed announced Friday afternoon, takes effect at 11:59 p.m. — but enforcement won't begin until 8 a.m. Wednesday morning. The move falls in line with a growing number of Bay Area cities and counties that have recently announced similar measures.

"Any time you're indoors or within close proximity of others within an essential business or at work ... you will be required to wear a mask," Breed said during her Friday afternoon briefing.

She stressed that the order does not replace the city's existing requirements to shelter in place and maintain physical distancing, and said San Franciscans should expect face coverings to be the "new normal" for the foreseeable future.

"It's just an additional requirement, an additional layer, that is necessary to help us flatten the curve," Breed said, noting that officials were working to distribute masks to the most vulnerable residents. "We want to make sure that people know our goal isn't to enforce until April 22nd to give people who may not have access to face coverings the opportunity to get access to them."

San Francisco officials started recommending the use of face coverings earlier this month, and many residents have already gotten in the habit of wearing them. But under the new measure, anyone out of compliance can be fined and charged with a misdemeanor. Essential businesses will also be required to refuse service to any customers who are not covering their faces.

Under the order, residents and workers are not required to wear face coverings in their homes or cars, or while walking, running, hiking or bicycling, but are encouraged to always keep one handy. Children 12 years old or younger do not have to wear them. The order warns against applying a face covering to any child age two or younger, due to risk of suffocation.

Face coverings include any fabric that fully covers the nose and mouth and fits securely, be that a bandanna, scarf, neck gaiter or homemade cotton mask, the city said. Officials emphasized that the coverings do not need to be medical-grade masks, like N95s or surgical masks, which they asked residents not to buy so that they don't decrease the supply for frontline health workers. 

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The measure comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in San Francisco in recent weeks, including an outbreak in the city's largest homeless shelter. As of April 16, 1,058 residents had tested positive for the disease and 20 had died, the city's public health department reported.

"By wearing masks or face coverings when interacting with other people in public, San Franciscans will be less likely to transmit the coronavirus to one another," said city Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax. "It is important to understand that today's order is part of a broader strategy to establish new ways of interacting and behaving. This will help us now and it will help us in the future as we hope to be able to relax the stay-at-home order."

Masks: To Wear or Not to Wear

On Friday, Marin, Alameda and Contra Costa counties issued similar face-covering mandates — with enforcement also set to begin next Wednesday — and San Mateo County officials were expected to follow suit. Sonoma County announced its face covering requirement earlier this week, which went into effect today. The city of Fremont on Thursday also began requiring customers and employees at essential business to cover their faces.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday said he is also weighing a statewide face-covering order as he considers how to reopen the state, and praised local efforts, including those in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles County, where a similar measure went into effect this week.

In a video on Friday announcing his county's face covering order, Marin County Health Officer Matt Willis said that widespread compliance would lift other, more restrictive orders.

"One of the reasons this is so important is that we’re learning more and more about the risk of transmission of this virus from people who are not having symptoms," he said, noting that people who become sick can become contagious for up to two days before showing symptoms. "The good news is that a simple facial covering with cloth will effectively reduce spreading droplets into the environment."

KQED's Alice Woelfle and Julia Scott contributed reporting