New Regulator Warns Health Measures, Like Masks, May Hurt Banks


The new head of a powerful banking regulator is not letting his first full week on the job pass quietly, warning that measures meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus — including mandates for the use of masks in public — could endanger the financial system.

Brian P. Brooks took over on Friday as the acting head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the federal agency that oversees the country’s largest banks. Mr. Brooks, a former banker, sent letters to the country’s mayors and governors about the negative effects of restrictions on public activity. Among them, he said: Face masks could lead to more bank robberies.

Mr. Brooks’s letter was unusual in its tone and scope; banking regulators tend to keep their communications fairly abstract. But Mr. Brooks pointed to what he said were specific risks associated with “continued state and local lockdown orders.”

“Certain aspects of these orders potentially threaten the stability and orderly functioning of the financial system,” he wrote.

Citing reports that some places would consider shutting off utility services to businesses that violate lockdown orders, the letter warned that cutting off water and electricity could hurt the value of the properties those businesses occupied. That, in turn, could hurt the banks that held mortgages on them.

Mr. Brooks also warned that forcing small businesses to stay closed could harm them financially — perhaps making them unable to pay back their loans. That, too, could harm the banks.

But he saved his most colorful warning for last.

“Finally,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “lengthy and potentially permanent requirements that individuals wear face masks in many or even all public spaces create the very real risk of increases in bank robberies.”

Referring to reports not cited specifically in the letter, Mr. Brooks said that recent “face-covering-related robberies” showed that “broadly applicable face mask requirements are not safe or sustainable on a permanent basis.”

A spokesman for Mr. Brooks’s office provided examples. Robberies of banks and other retail stores by people wearing surgical masks have been reported in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia, according to a report by The Hill. A person wearing a surgical mask robbed a convenience store in Connecticut, according to Quartz. And Insider reported robberies by masked offenders in California, Washington and North Carolina.

The spokesman, Bryan Hubbard, said that Mr. Brooks was not claiming that there had been an increase in robberies over all.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a cloth face covering when they leave their home, to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

  • Updated June 1, 2020

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


Many cities have reported substantially less crime during the pandemic. Some crimes, including commercial burglaries, have increased in some places as businesses have been unattended.

The American Bankers Association did not immediately comment on Monday afternoon.

Mr. Brooks arrived at the O.C.C. just two months ago, as the deputy comptroller under Joseph Otting. When Mr. Otting left on Friday, a week after enacting a hastily finished revamp of a seminal anti-redlining law, Mr. Brooks took his place in an acting capacity. He could become the new permanent replacement for Mr. Otting, but only if President Trump nominates him for the position, and the Senate confirms him.

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

The banking industry’s other two federal regulators, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve, which usually act in concert with the O.C.C. and one another, have not released similar warnings. Representatives for both agencies declined to comment on Mr. Brooks’s letter.

Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.



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