On a recent Friday night, Main Street was bustling as students and full-time residents alike took in the downtown ambiance and enjoyed the near-perfect weather of a late-summer evening.
Groups of students walked down the street, at times stopping to greet – or in a few cases, hug – friends. Older residents left restaurants clutching to-go containers. As night fell, other students, dressed for a night out, headed to the bars.
Fewer than half wore masks.
As the number of coronavirus cases at the University of Delaware continues to rise and a number of Newark residents have taken to social media to raise concerns about the number of maskless students walking around downtown, the Newark Post sought to examine how well downtown visitors are complying with guidelines for mask wearing and social distancing. A reporter spent an hour sitting outside Starbucks, observing each person who walked by and tallying how many were and were not wearing masks.
The results? Of the approximately 400 people who passed by, only 45 percent were wearing masks correctly. A number of others had masks in their possession, but wore them down on their chin, twirled them from their fingers, or in the case of one guy, wore it on top of his head like a bonnet.
State and city officials said that statistic is troubling.
“Yes, we are concerned and that is why DPH is working closely with the City of Newark, University of Delaware and other local partners on enforcement and outreach in this area,” said Jennifer Brestel, spokeswoman for the Delaware Division of Public Health.
Under state guidelines, masks are required in outdoor areas except “when an individual can maintain at least six feet of social distance between members of separate households.”
“Busy sidewalks with a lot of foot traffic can make social distancing difficult, therefore face coverings should be worn when walking in these areas,” Brestel said.
Mayor Jerry Clifton concurred.
“It does concern me, and it concerns me in the context that everyone is talking about let’s go back to normal and let’s open things up at all,” Clifton said. “If you truly want to get back to normal, then I just don’t see where the simple act of wearing a mask is so egregious and so impactful that you wouldn’t want to do it for everyone’s safety.”
Newark spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said the city is aware of concerns about mask-wearing downtown and is taking steps to address it.
Last month, the city charged its parking enforcement officers with also serving as “mask ambassadors.” They were provided with a supply of masks and told to offer them to downtown visitors not wearing one.
Last week, officials told them to step-up their effort and “be more aware,” Gravell said.
“We are going to do a stronger push with the parking ambassadors/mask ambassadors to, just in a friendly way, be like ‘Did you forget your mask’ or “Do you need a mask?’ Politely ask and remind people to wear a mask,” she said.
She estimated the mask ambassadors have given out several hundred masks and recently ordered another 600.
“They’re definitely getting them out there,” she said. “They’re definitely distributing them.”
Gravell said she is not aware of any incidents in which people reacted poorly to being offered a mask.
“Everybody’s been very respectful,” she said.
She also noted that compliance with mask guidelines seems to vary based on the time of day.
“There have been times where I’m just driving through town and people are walking alone with a mask on, so you get kind of like a mixed bag,” she said.
Several Delaware beach towns with busy pedestrian areas, including Rehoboth Beach, Lewes and Bethany Beach, have gone even farther to enforce mask wearing. They all passed ordinances requiring masks on the boardwalk and/or on sidewalks in the town’s main commercial areas. Bethany, for example, fines violators up to $100.
Clifton confirmed that Newark officials had internal discussions about mandating masks, but ultimately chose not to debate the issue publicly. Instead, city council focused its efforts on limiting private gatherings and an unsuccessful attempt to limit seating at bars.
“I was hoping people would just voluntarily do the right thing and help us get back to normal,” he said.
Still, Clifton said he would support a mask mandate.
“I would endorse a mandatory mask ordinance in some parts of the community, the areas that are the most impacted – Main Street and some of the other areas around campus,” he said. “I kind of liked the idea to do something like that. I know it may not be the most popular for some people, but it just seems to me that if we’re serious about normal, we’ve got to do what I call the simple steps in getting back to normal.”
He left open the possibility that council could still consider such an ordinance if the situation worsens.
“If things continue with the university numbers going in the direction they’re going, then I think it’s a fair conversation to have and see what we can do,” he said.
In the four weeks since the semester began, UD has reported 218 cases. Health officials say large social gatherings are the main driver behind virus transmission in Newark.
“I think we need to do our due diligence as elected officials. If we as a governing body get it wrong, the net result is going to be horrendous. I’d rather err to the side of safety than just say, for example, let’s have larger gatherings and so forth and when we find out we’re wrong, that horse has left the barn and you have a huge problem,” Clifton said. “I don’t want to become the epicenter of Delaware.”