Residents are advised, but not required, to take COVID-19 precautions

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A Facebook post shared more than 29,000 times claims people in Pennsylvania who do not wear a face mask in public during the novel coronavirus pandemic risk a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. This is false; authorities in the US state recommend wearing face masks as a precaution, but say they will not penalize those who do not.

The post from April 26, 2020 claims residents face the penalties if they are “caught in public without a mask.”

A screenshot of the post taken on May 4, 2020

The claim was shared by other social media users on Twitter and Facebook, including here, here and here.

But state health and law enforcement officials said the mentioned penalties do not apply.

“Pennsylvanians are expected to, and are doing the right thing, and we do not intend to fine or otherwise penalize an individual if they are not wearing a mask, but all are expected to wear a mask if they will be out in public and could interact with any individuals while out,” Nate Wardle, press secretary for Pennsylvania’s health department, told AFP by email. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Health’s guidelines advise wearing a mask when shopping or interacting with customers or clients at essential businesses, visiting a healthcare provider, when feeling sick, coughing or sneezing, and on public transportation.

“You have to wear a mask if you go to the grocery store. If you don’t wear a mask in the grocery store, the store would be fined for not ensuring that you’re wearing the mask, it’s not the everyday citizen, not the general public,” Ryan Tarkowski, Communications Director at Pennsylvania State Police told AFP by phone.

“That’s where the confusion might come from,” he added. 

“If you’re walking down the street, by yourself, getting some exercise, there’s no requirement for a mask,” Tarkowski said.

In Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, wearing a mask is a recommendation, not a legal requirement.

“The City neither fines nor jails those who do not comply,” Mike Dunn, the deputy director of communications for the city, said by email.

As of midday on May 4, Pennsylvania had 50,092 total cases of COVID-19 -- the disease caused by the novel coronavirus -- which has killed nearly 250,000 people worldwide.

The state’s governor, Tom Wolf, has announced that 24 counties with low per-capita case counts would enter a “yellow” or reopening phase as of May 8, 2020. 

Under the new phase, limitations around large gatherings will remain in place but some businesses will be allowed to reopen. Schools, however, will stay closed.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”