The new directive requires voluntary compliance

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Today King County Metro (in Washington State) announced that a "New public health Directive requires masks or face coverings on transit":

Starting Monday, May 18 until further notice, passengers are required to wear masks or face coverings while riding transit. Additionally, Executive Dow Constantine has directed that all King County employees, including transit operators and crews, wear masks or face coverings when in public indoor spaces or outdoors when they are unable to social distance. 

According to Public Health – Seattle & King County, a face covering may prevent further community spread of the COVID-19 virus by blocking infectious droplets from spreading when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes, or speaks. It’s the latest move to promote safety across our fleet for operators, crew, and passengers.  

The new directive requires voluntary compliance, and Metro operators will not prevent passengers without face coverings from boarding.

Ron Irving, who forwarded the message, was puzzled by the part about requiring voluntary compliance.

"An oxymoron? A statement with no meaning? I don’t know what to make of it."

Apparently it means that the requirement will not actually be enforced. Technically I think that "requires voluntary compliance" ought to mean that you've got to follow the directive and like it too, by golly. But these are strange times.

The obligatory screenshot:

Update — Leo in the comments makes a key point:

If we interpret "requires" to mean "depends upon [for success]", it makes more sense. The directive "requires" voluntary compliance because it won't work without it.

Interpreting "requires" as "strictly enforces" makes a complete nonsense of the final line, "Metro operators will not prevent passengers without face coverings from boarding".

Thus among the OED's many senses for require we find "To order, instruct, or oblige (a person) to do something" vs. "To depend on for success or survival; to stand in need of; to need".


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 1:50 pm

    I feel like there's an old joke or New Yorker cartoon or something where Moses is coming down from the mountain with the stone tablets and some interlocutor wanting to soften the message asks him something like "Can't we just call them the Ten Non-Binding Recommendations"?

  2. mg said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 2:07 pm

    Sadly, my guess is that the "voluntary" part is because of the horrific attacks (including a killing) against store personnel who have tried to tell people they can't enter without a mask. The only safe way to do this would be to have police enforce it, and no place has enough cops to cover every place (not to mention that they have policing to do).

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 2:35 pm

    "Indeed all obedience considered under the notion of righteousness, is something active, something done in voluntary compliance with a command; …" — The Works of President Edwards in Four Volumes, A Reprint of the Worcester Edition, with Valuable Additions and a Copious General Index (1844).

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    The thing that makes this notice even more toothless is the rest of the last paragraph that might be paraphrased as "look, certain categories of people are exempt from the directive and it's not necessarily obvious at first sight who falls into those categories so anyone who sees anyone else apparently not complying should be charitable and assume they're exempt rather than non-compliant." So they're not only announcing that they're not going to formally enforce the "directive," they're affirmatively discouraging the operation of the ordinary social-pressure-and-suasion mechanisms thorough which many norms (including but not limited to those formally embodied in the law) get enforced in practice without the actual police being omnipresent. Like formal police enforcement, informal peer-group enforcement certainly has costs (such as hassling innocent people misidentified as "false positives" and/or violent negative reaction from the hassled) as well as benefits, but … is there a third compliance-promoting alternative they're thinking is likely to happen here? What is the subset of the local population that is now likely to comply with this directive that wouldn't already comply if it was phrased explicitly as a non-binding recommendation?

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    There is a widespread (and legitimate) concern about having transit agency staff (other than police) doing any kind of enforcement, as this often leads to violent altercations. In addition, there are people with health conditions that mean they cannot wear masks. Here in Massachusetts, the state has a similar policy, applying to all transportation agencies, which additionally prohibits employees from inquiring whether non-mask-wearers actually have such a health condition.

    Since police powers are used disproportionately against the poor and minority communities that are also disproportionately affected by the virus, this seems an entirely sensible approach to take.

  6. KeithB said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 3:30 pm

    Same thing in New Mexico. The Governor wants it enforced by peer pressure.

  7. George said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 4:42 pm

    Surely "we strongly encourage" is a simpler and more honest path to the same place.

  8. Alison said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 4:45 pm

    To me this looks like a case of nerdview. From the point of view of a policy maker, "voluntary compliance" is a thing this plan needs in order to work. (it also requires a PR push to inform citizens, for instance, and it requires that those communications be translated into the languages people in the area may speak).

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 6:47 pm

    I think Alison has it right. "Requires voluntary compliance" is stilted bureaucratese for "we need everyone to get behind this".

  10. CD said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 9:49 pm

    A couple of months ago, here in Seattle, if you wore a mask in public you felt pretty conspicuous. That's no longer the case! So this is a matter of norming, and in a way that lets you shrug and say "sure, I'll obey the state" if you feel a little weird about it. In other words I'm not sure a non-enforced rule is a pure contradiction in this case.

    The really weird part in the U.S. is that the President is encouraging resistance, including resistance by people carrying guns, to state orders. That raises the stakes for local authorities.

  11. Leo said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 3:16 am

    If we interpret "requires" to mean "depends upon [for success]", it makes more sense. The directive "requires" voluntary compliance because it won't work without it.

    Interpreting "requires" as "strictly enforces" makes a complete nonsense of the final line, "Metro operators will not prevent passengers without face coverings from boarding".

  12. Dave said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 3:16 am

    Newspeak? At least the "Two Minutes Hate" has yet to become endemic in the land of Washington.

    No, never mind, not Newspeak — at least I haven't heard of anyone serious over there espousing "ignorance is strength".

  13. Seth said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 3:46 am

    Seconded, Allison is correct. Look at the following sentence:

    ""We trust that all riders will comply to the extent that they can …"

    The above is obviously a statement of their ideals, not a declaration of gullibility.

  14. colin mclarty said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 7:22 am

    This issue has already gotten people shot and at least one killed. It is not a misuse of language, it is not "newspeak;" and "we strongly encourage" would not be a simpler and more honest path to the same place. Masks are not just encouraged here, they are required by law. However, hundreds of people have showed up at state capitols brandishing guns the past week to protest such laws. People have been shot. So the law makers needed to be clear that transit personnel (and the public) must *not* do anything towards enforcing this. Comments above by Wollman, mg, Alison, Kusnick and Seth are right.

  15. Alexander Pruss said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 8:44 am

    Arguably, we have a moral duty to obey laws that are not unjust and that come from legitimate authorities or not, whether there are sanctions attached or not. Here the authority is legitimate and the law is just, so one is morally *required* to comply. But the complying is *voluntary*, since the primary sanction behind the rule is one's conscience.

  16. Dave said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 9:07 am

    Colin, sorry the sarcasm didn't make it through to text. I should've added something about the irish young making the best gloves, I suppose.

    As a positive contribution, the Mittelfranken police replied to a twitter request with:
    "Rechtlich dürfen Sie es, ob dies auch richtig ist müssen Sie selbst entscheiden." (according to the law you may, but whether this is also correct you must decide for yourself)
    which briefly spawned a hashtag "erlaubt aber falsch" (permitted, but wrong)

    Maybe the US needs a similar pithy phrase? I thought of "you may choose not to wear a mask; you may also choose to jump off a bridge", but that doesn't really capture the fact that mask-wearing is for everyone else's benefit, and not jumping off a bridge is for your own (or at least for your mother's).

    Come to the dark side — we have masks?

    (I liked the phrasing of our President when we went into lockdown: she said, effectively, that the executive could pass all the laws that it wanted, but what would matter is that the people understood the rationale and would keep to the spirit in which they were intended)

  17. mnoelle said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 1:06 pm

    Agree with Colin.
    Also, as a native Seattleite working in King County, this doesn't even read oddly to me. We are famous for waiting for the light at crosswalks when no vehicles are present. We will voluntarily follow a rule that seems reasonable, even when not actively enforced, as part of the social contract.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 2:25 pm

    Mnoelle — a Czech friend and I observed similar behaviour when attending a conference somewhere in continental Europe many years ago. I forget the exact location but I do remember that we joked that if the traffic lights were to fail the newspapers would carry a report that X people froze/starved to death, waiting for the lights to change …

  19. Chester Draws said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 7:51 pm

    The really weird part in the U.S. is that the President is encouraging resistance

    Did you miss the bit where all those people who proclaimed, wait for it … "Resistance", to the President before he even took office? And you never noticed how strongly many state governors have fought Trump's directives?

    States and presidents squabbling is neither remotely new nor "weird".

  20. Dave said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 11:36 pm

    States and presidents squabbling over things which are as popular as kittens and apple pie does seem weird to me — but I haven't been in the Old Country for most of the XXI, so maybe it's the new normal?

    Of course, these kind of polls only matter under the assumption of "one person one vote", which is true over here, but fails miserably under XVIII (pre-Congress of Vienna Act XV?) electoral systems.

    Back to "voluntary compliance": in principle, voting is a means of gauging the extent to which compliance with a policy proposal would be voluntary or involuntary. In anglophone countries, bare majorities or even sub-majorities may deliver a "win" at the polls, but in more consensus-oriented countries, very few consider such a win to be equivalent to a mandate.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 5:15 pm

    Surely, Leo is correct, and this is a perfectly normal sense of 'requires', only one we normally don't think of in the context of something that looks like an order.

    As for the XKCD, polls can be twisted and cherry-picked quite a bit; but that tells us what side _he_ is on.

    k_over_hbarc at

  22. SusanC said,

    May 18, 2020 @ 4:03 pm

    It’s a rather jargon-y way to express the idea, but the rest of the sentence makes it clear what is meant, that it won’t be enforced.

    Over here in the UK, the actual legislation around covid19 probably has aspects that are infeasible to enforce, and there’s also supplementary advice, and some things that are explicitly not enforced … so the.basic concept of “we are asking you to do this, but aren’t enforcing it” is a common one that needs expressing somehow.

    (UK example: the law says I am allowed to leave my house to take household waste to a recycling centre for disposal; local council guidance is that I should only do this for waste that I cannot store safely at home … but then adds that neither the police nor the operatives at the disposal centre will try to disagree with me if I claim that something needs to be taken for disposal in the interests of public safety)

  23. John Carr said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    The IRS has described the American tax system as depending on voluntary compliance. That leads some people to decide paying taxes is voluntary.

  24. Jim said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 12:26 pm

    King Country Metro is mandated to provide protection equipment to the drivers, but hasn't event provided masks, much less things like locking floor-to-ceiling doors to the driving space.

    The majority of riders on Metro busses are "non-destination riders", people who simply ride the bus all day, not getting off until the end of that run. This year's entry in PC for "homeless". These people don't social distance, they smoke and eat and do illegal drugs on the bus, sometime they urinate and defecate, and they even spit on the driver when they leave.

    Every negative takeaway you can have from this release is true.

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