The Difference Between a Mandate and a Law in Massachusetts
In an emergency, decisions usually have to be made in a hurry. There may be no time to plan what to do and how to do it. If the emergency is a personal one, it’s often up to you and who is around you to make urgent decisions about your own safety. Later, you might reflect on what happened and make some changes in the way you do things which might help if that particular emergency happened again.
Sometimes, the emergency affects hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. Whole towns, cities, states and regions, even the whole world, may be affected by the same emergency. That’s when governments have to act. Whether it is a storm event, like the recent aftermath of Hurricane Ida, a fire, earthquake, or an outbreak of a deadly disease like Covid-19, the suddenness of the emergency necessitates hard and difficult decisions that must be made by governments at a local, municipal, state or federal level. These decisions are normally in the form of a mandate. They are not meant to be permanent and may be revoked as soon as the perceived threat to the population recedes.
Boston’s recent mask mandate
A good example in this state is the mask mandate put in place from August 17th in Boston. The mandate was in response to the resurgence of Covid-19 in the form of the Delta variant in some parts of Massachusetts. The mandate requires everyone to wear a mask inside a shared public place. Because it is a mandate, there are consequences for not obeying it. The fact that it hasn’t been accompanied by a state wide mask mandate is due to the relative lower perceived risk of the virus surging outside of the major metropolitan parts of the state.
Mandate or law – what’s the difference?
Mandates have been a controversial topic in many parts of the U.S., especially when they have been related to combating Covid-19. Partly this is because they are perceived as less democratic than ‘laws,’ which many people understand only come into effect after much debate and the often slow process that they must take through the legislature before eventually, if ever, being signed into effect by the Governor (or the President if it is a federal law). Mandates and laws have some things in common, but there are also important differences.
To use another analogy, let’s say you encounter a black bear while walking on a trail in the woods. The bear approaches you at a run and you are forced to do what you can to fend it off. Hopefully, it works! Once you get back home to safety you then probably start to think about what you could have done before you set out on the walk such as carry bear spray, check whether there had been any alerts out for rogue bears, carry a big stick and make sure your cell phone was easy to get hold of, etc. What you did when you were first attacked is the emergency action, like the ‘mandate’, albeit a personal one. The other things you thought of later are like the ‘law’ that is created to make another bear encounter less perilous.
Basically, mandates are orders given due to a sudden emergency and are not expected to last. Laws are usually intended to be more permanent, but take too long to enact to be used in an emergency. They are created after the need to have that law is thought to be an improvement on civil society. Sometimes, there is unanimous agreement that the need for the law is appropriate and at other times there is disagreement, usually on political lines, that the law should exist at all. Because a law is expected to last much longer than a mandate, it must go through a thorough process of debate and review before a vote on it.
Are mandates mandatory and is there a punishment if you don’t obey them?
Mandates are orders given by a city, state or federal authority and there are penalties if there is a transgression of the mandate. To take the two most recent types of mandates in Massachusetts as examples, vaccine mandates and mask mandates, anyone who is affected by these mandates must obey them or face the consequences. Police officers can act to issue fines or in extreme cases, arrest anyone who disobeys a mandate. However, the actual penalties vary quite widely.
For example, the city of Boston issued a vaccine mandate which came into effect at the end of August this year. All city contractors, employees and volunteers must be fully vaccinated and use the city’s digital portal to verify their vaccination status. Allowing for exemptions based on specific personal health grounds, it means that without being vaccinated could mean you have no job working for the city. That’s the penalty. A mask mandate could mean that without a mask you will not be allowed to enter a public building. Note the difference between a mandate and a recommendation. Mask mandates have become particularly contentious in some states like Florida and Texas where Governors oppose them despite the public health advice.
The suite of mandates that came into force in Massachusetts in March and April 2020 as a consequence of the dramatic rise in infections were finally revoked on June 15th this year. Mandates were often followed by ‘recommendations’. Governor Baker was hopeful in mid-summer that the pandemic (the emergency) was nearly over with rising vaccinations and falling infections. However, that was before Delta arrived proving that this particular pandemic is not yet over. There may still be a health threat as the Fall gets into full swing.
Laws take time to come into effect
Laws take months or sometimes years to be passed and become new state or federal statutes. They are usually first proposed by political parties before elections or individual law makers. Before laws get anywhere near being voted on, that represented as Bills and go through a series of hearings at committee stage before being presented in a final form to both legislative bodies. There they are debated and only if the Bill is passed in both the House of Representatives and Senate will it go to the Governor to sign into law. That’s a more democratic and thorough process, but not something that lends itself to efficacy when dealing with an emergency!