The National Emergency Operations Committee (COE) said Tuesday that Cuenca and Guayaquil cannot mandate the use of facemasks and cannot sanction or fine those who refuse to wear them. The COE claimed there was a need to “clarify” its April 28 decision to end the national mask mandate after officials in several cities claimed they had the authority to set their own rules.
In addition to Cuenca and Guayaquil, four other cantonal governments were maintaining local masking rules as of Monday.
On Monday night, Guayaquil Mayor Cynthia Viteri said her city would enforce an indoor masking rule through May 27 and claimed the right to fine those in violation. Two Cuenca municipal council members made similar statements over the weekend.
“There is apparently some confusion about our decision to withdraw the mandate and it is our intention today to make ourselves clear,” said Juan Zapata, president of the national COE. “Our decision applies to the entire country and cannot be overruled by local interests. The wearing of facemasks is voluntary for all Ecuadorians and no one can be sanctioned for refusing to wear one. We strongly encourage those with health vulnerabilities to continue to wear a mask but this is strictly a recommendation.”
Zapata said this was always the intent of the April 28 decision. “We said that local governments could make recommendations for masking based on local conditions but could not contradict the COE decision. In several cases this was misinterpreted to mean municipalities could apply their own rules with penalties.”
Zapata added that the national COE is authorized, under the Covid-19 health emergency, to make decisions that apply nationwide. “We operate with a national emergency authorization which cannot be countermanded by local governments,” he said, adding the COE and Ministry of Health have the backing of President Guillermo Lasso in clarifying the masking decision.
Following Zapata’s announcement, Cuenca city councilman Xavier Barrera said he will recommend that the council defy the national COE. “In my opinion, the national COE can recommend whatever it wants but we should not change the local rules. It is our responsibility to protect the health of the people of Cuenca and our decisions will be based on epidemiological criteria from our own community.”
According the Azuay governor’s office, the city has not levied a fine for mask mandate violations since February.