A proposal to implement a mask mandate at city facilities in response to COVID-19 came up against strong opposition during Monday night's Mitchell City Council meeting.

The discussion came after Council member Susan Tjarks requested Monday’s agenda to include a discussion for the council to consider mandating a mask policy at all city facilities, which was met with criticism from community members who have extensive experience as health care professionals. There were no community members who spoke in support of the mask mandate at Monday’s meeting. Following the lengthy discussion, the council did not take any action on implementing a mask mandate.

However, Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson is allowing any council member to add a proposal that could call for the council to vote on a mask mandate at the Nov. 2 meeting, should a council member request a proposal prior to that meeting.

“We’re facing a public health crisis in Davison County, in my opinion,” Tjarks said. “Any mask requirement or request is not just protecting our employees, but we are also protecting the public. I think that wearing a mask is an act of compassion, whether you believe in science or not… Health care professionals are recommending it, and it may save a life.”

Council President Kevin McCardle pushed back at the possibility of a mask mandate, noting it should be every community member’s choice whether to wear a mask.

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Tjarks pointed to Davison County’s recent surge in cases as the main reason she is supporting a mask policy at all city facilities and wore one to Monday’s meeting for the first time since the pandemic swept into the area. In addition, Tjarks referenced studies from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that showed evidence supporting masks effectiveness in reducing the virus from spreading.

“I think the general public is smart enough to make their own decisions that are best for their own health,” McCardle said. “There is also no way we can effectively mandate masks.”

McCardle said he’s been closely monitoring Davison County’s case numbers, which have been spiking to new highs as of recently, but he ultimately supports giving community members and city employees the option to wear a mask.

As of Monday, Davison County had a total of 286 active cases of coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 732 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Davison County. The recent spike in cases is the largest increase in coronavirus cases that the county has experienced thus far.

The city of Brookings in Brookings County is the lone South Dakota county to have implemented a citywide mask mandate. Brookings has seen a steady increase in cases over since the mandate. As of Monday, Brookings County had a total of 333 active cases, according to the state’s Department of Health. Since the start of the pandemic, Brookings has reported 1,223 cases, 491 more than Davison County’s case numbers.

Citizens’ against mask mandates

Dwight Stadler, a Mitchell resident, spoke in opposition of a mask mandate. Stadler previously spent over 30 years in the medical sector with the Veterans Health Care Administration, which was a position that entailed infection control and infection prevention such as Ebola.

“COVID-19 is a virus, and the CDC recognizes that COVID-19 is a virus. And a virus is an airborne pathogen with microscopic particles… To stop those airborne particulates, I think we are kidding ourselves if we are going to think we can do that with mandatory mask use,” Stadler said. “Airborne pathogens are different than droplets. Airborne Pathogens remain in the air up to several hours, and in order to protect against airborne pathogens, you have to have an N95 mask that can provide an effective seal, which is very difficult.”

Rather than mandating masks, Stadler suggested the council educate and train community members on proper hygiene and disinfecting practices. In addition, Stadler said he’s learned from his experience with the Veterans Health Care Administration that an individual’s eyes can absorb airborne particles and viruses, adding another reason for his stance claiming the ineffectiveness of masks for those not wearing goggles or sealed eye protection.

“The number one contributor to spreading infections are your fingers,” Stadler said.

Sonja VanErdewyk, a Mitchell resident and former critical care registered nurse, strongly opposed the possibility of a mask mandate at city facilities, referencing several scientific studies that showed evidence supporting masks are ineffective and have led to adverse effects on one’s health. The first study was done by a team of doctors and medical researchers, which was published in the BMJ Open, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

“There actually are no randomized control trials verifying the outcome that shows the benefits of healthcare workers or community members for wearing a mask or respirator,” VanErdewyk said. “However, there is a study (BMJ Open) that was done in 2015 that showed in a hospital setting with mandates on cloth masks, surgical masks or no masks. What they found was that the cloth mask for healthcare workers who know how to take their mask off and put it on, the infection rate actually increased 13 times.”

According to VanErdewyk, there has been an increase in dental issues since many have begun wearing masks in response to the pandemic. She claimed mask wearing has caused bacteria and viruses that are normally expelled from the body to linger inside of the mask, leading to an increase in infections.

“We have all these digestive systems and natural ways we get rid of the bad things in our body. When we obstruct that, then we can’t exhale the bad particles and they get into the fomite area,” VanErdewyk said, noting that leads to an increase in influenza, bacterial infections and pneumonia, to name a few. “Also, if this was such a bad virus, we would be throwing these masks away in a biohazard area after they are worn, but you see kids wearing the same masks everyday and sometimes not washing it everyday.”

As for city staff members thoughts on a mask mandate, Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway said he does not support a mandate. However, Greenway said he supports mask wearing inside Mitchell's biggest tourist attraction at the choice of visitors and facility users.

"I am absolutely supportive of people who enter the Corn Palace and are wearing masks, and about 90% of visitors wear them. But a mandate could eliminate a lot of events and business we get at the Corn Palace such as the Pheasants Forever Banquet we recently held," Greenway said.

At the Mitchell Recreation Center, Recreation Program Coordinator Todd Cavanaugh said he respects whatever policy in regard to mask wearing that may be implemented for city staff members. But he stopped short of saying whether he supports a vote in favor of a city facility mask mandate.

Several additional city employees that the Mitchell Republic reached out to did not feel comfortable going on record about their stance on a potential mask mandate at city facilities.

Enforcement uncertainty

Following the public testimonies, Tjarks pitched the suggestion for the council to include language in the city’s COVID-19 ordinance to strongly request mask wearing in all city facilities.

“I certainly don’t want to see anyone arrested because they walked into a city building without a mask on, but I do think that we should have a strong request in a powerful way,” Tjarks said.

Mayor Everson reminded the council that the city currently has a policy that strongly recommends masks when one isn’t able to achieve the adequate six feet of social distance that’s recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

City Attorney Justin Johnson joined the discussion via teleconference call, noting the lack of enforcement for a mask mandate would essentially nullify such an ordinance.

“There was some discussion tonight about not wanting to make any arrests and have consequences. But if you’re not going to have those types of consequences and enforcement methods, there is no purpose of putting that mandate in an ordinance,” Johnson said.

City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein pitched the option of updating the signage at city facilities to include mask recommendations. Ellwein said most of the COVID-19 protocol signage at city facilities does not include language strongly recommending mask wearing.

“We could do more of a standard signage that would include the social distancing, masks, CDC requirements and updated symptom list on the signs because as you know the updated symptoms list expanded,” Ellwein said.