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The trouble with maskless tourists

Face masks remain something a polarizing topic over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the vast majority of people have been compliant with the many safety protocols put in place due to the virus, some still take issue with wearing face coverings.

The fact that there’s still no national mask mandate in the United States, with state and local governments varying significantly on implementation of mask rules, certainly doesn’t help matters. Texas and Mississippi are among the 13 US states that have lifted mask mandates.

And while most European countries have been enforcing face mask requirements, the rules on where and when they need to be worn vary, particularly when it comes to wearing them outdoors.

Lisa Maragakis, an expert in infection prevention from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, stresses that “wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus,” but the resistance towards masks is apparent.

Back in January, flight attendants for American Airlines admitted to CNN Travel that trying to enforce mask wearing has become the hardest part of their job, so it’s perhaps no surprise that maskless travelers have been causing problems at tourist sites.

Authorities in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula recently closed the Chichen Itza Maya ruin site after police reportedly complained of maskless visitors despite the fact that wearing masks in public is mandatory in most parts of the country.

However, while the absence of face masks was clearly a concern, Yucatan Tourism told CNN Travel that the site was actually closed due to overcrowding.

“The archaeological zone of Chichen Itza was closed only during the Holy Week season (from April 1 to 4, re-opening on April 5) for preventive reasons in the presence of Covid-19, to avoid crowds and as a priority for the health care of visitors and locals, and not because of the absence of the use of masks,” a spokesperson said via email.

‘Lack of leadership’

But why are so many tourists seemingly ignoring the rules around mask wearing?

According to Michael O’Regan, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University and former assistant professor at the Institute for Tourism Studies, the issue is a complicated one.

“You can see that there is a level of selfishness there,” O’Regan tells CNN Travel, pointing out that some travelers who’ve already been fully vaccinated may feel that the rules don’t apply to them.

“There are some who think they don’t have to wear masks because they’re vaccinated and they come from the states or Europe. In their mind it’s not their responsibility.

“Some of the education around mask wearing isn’t good. People don’t understand that if they have been vaccinated, they can still get the virus, they can still pass it on.

“Tourists are at fault, but they are not the only ones who are at fault.”

O’Regan points out that some officials have sent out confusing messages by being openly dismissive of mask wearing.

For instance, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador famously said he would not wear a face mask after recovering from Covid-19, while former US President Donald Trump openly mocked face mask wearers during his last year in office.

“There’s a lack of leadership around mask wearing,” O’Regan adds.

Some local authorities have been handing out hefty fines to those who refuse to comply in order to clamp down on rule breakers.

This has certainly been the case in Puerto Rico, where police have issued a number of $100 fines to tourists caught in public without a mask or face covering due to tensions between locals and travelers around noncompliance.

“Ever since we started this plan, we have made several arrests and have intervened with a lot of disorderly conduct,” Orlando Rivera Lebron, the police chief for San Juan, told USA Today.

Unorthodox punishments

However, Balinese officials have come up with a rather unorthodox punishment for maskless travelers.

While those who are deliberately non-compliant are subject to a 100,000 rupiah ($9) fine, visitors who admit to having slipped up, for example, bringing their mask out with them but forgetting to put it on, have been given the option of doing push ups, or even sweeping the street instead.

Badung regency Public Order Agency chief I Gusti Agung Kerta Suryanegara told the ABC that 80% of those who received a fine were travelers.

In recent weeks, various videos of tourists completing push-ups have been posted online.

“The fine is absolutely nothing, but the videos might be a deterrent,” says O’Regan.

He believes authorities need to be tougher when it comes to handing out fines, otherwise some may think they can break the rules and get away with it.

“There’s a lack of enforcement,” he says. “In Puerto Rico, quite a few tourists have been fined. Maybe that’s a better example than having people doing push ups.”

“The national authorities have to educate people and at this stage, they have to back it up with mandatory fines for those who don’t wear masks.”

However, O’Regan acknowledges some destinations may be wary of seeming to be too strict or heavy handed with regards to masks, particularly those that are highly reliant on tourism.

Earlier this month, a law requiring sunbathers wear masks on the beach in Spain received strong backlash from tourism officials and regional authorities, who stressed that it could deter travelers from visiting.

The Spanish government has since amended the law to allow people to remove face coverings on the beach so long as they remain in one place and keep a distance of at least 1.5 meters from anyone who is not a member of their household.

“If there’s conflict, it can have an impact on the image of a destination,” says O’Regan. “But if you get the image that it’s a free for all.

“That there are illegal parties happening and no one is obeying the rules, that can give the destination an even worse image.”

Of course, this isn’t just a problem for international destinations like Mexico, Puerto Rico and Bali. Hawaiian authorities have also received complaints about tourists going maskless.

Educating tourists

Dr. Lee Buenconsejo-Lum from the University of Hawaii, explains that while case numbers haven’t risen significantly since the destination reopened its borders, that fact that tourists aren’t taking mask protocols seriously is concerning.

“It’s a matter of constantly educating the tourists,” she told the New York Times.

When questioned on why they weren’t wearing masks, several US tourists in Hawaii reportedly explained to journalists that they aren’t required to where them in their home states and don’t see a problem with walking around maskless while outside.

Unfortunately, O’Regan feels this issue will only get worse as more and more people become fully vaccinated and destinations reopen around the world.

“In every country you have a certain amount of people who are transgressing the rules,” he says.

“They might have already been breaking the rules by partying or mingling in their home countries, so they’re simply doing the same thing they were at home.

“Now with more tourists being vaccinated, they feel they are protected. But they don’t always think about other people.

“They’re looking at the places that are open, and thinking ‘I’ll go there,’ but not examining the local rules. These tourists are putting people at risk, but it’s not only their fault.”

He stresses that the tourism industry also has a part to play when it comes to putting safety protocols in place, making sure the rules are clear and enforced appropriately.

“There are places opening that shouldn’t be opening,” O’Regan adds. “Some restaurants are turning into late night bars or night clubs.

“Sometimes there’s no intervention by the businesses involved, so of course people are going to think they can push boundaries. “But it’s up to the national authorities to crack down and enforce existing regulations.

“We live in liberal democracies. There are always going to be people who break the rules.”

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