If you don’t stop your car when approaching a crosswalk as a child darts across the street, you could face a $200 fine. If a police officer spots you caving to the urge to answer a friend’s text while driving to work, you’ll pay $100 if it’s your first violation of the state’s Hands-Free Law. It’ll be $250 for a second offense.
Get caught riding the commuter rail or an MBTA shuttle without wearing a mask, and it could cost you $300.
Something’s clearly wrong here.
We’re all for wearing masks. It’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly in places where it’s impossible to keep a safe distance from others. T riders need to wear masks, especially in the close confines of a bus or subway car or commuter rail car.
But some mask rules wield a sledgehammer when a more precise instrument would do.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent order that anyone age 5 or older in any public place in Massachusetts put on a mask, while standing on a sidewalk in Boston’s Financial District or on the side of a remote highway in the Berkshires, comes to mind. It’s the same executive order that prompted the MBTA’s recent announcement that not wearing a mask — not even wearing one the correct way, so that it covers the mouth and nose — will bring riders a $300 fine.
If an MBTA employee asks a rider to mask up and is met with refusal, that person should be asked to leave. Apart from filling the coffers of an agency so depleted that it’s facing deep service cuts, what’s the point of a $300 fine?
Transit advocates point out that enforcing such steep fines targets a population least likely to be able to afford it. If you’re coming home from a minimum wage job and get handed a $300 ticket on the Green Line, you’ll need three days worth of wages to cover it, to say nothing of the headaches you could have for not paying. The T, if it so desires, can seek a complaint against scofflaws in court.
Besides, people in situations who more immediately threaten the safety and lives of others — by not stopping their cars for pedestrians or not paying attention to traffic — face less severe consequences.
Sensible mask rules are important to fighting the spread of COVID-19, and fines encourage people to follow those rules. Unreasonable fines, however, are offensive and exact a penalty much too severe for the infraction — especially if someone who cannot pay ends up facing a criminal charge as a result.