After a fiery debate between residents in support of a mask mandate and those who oppose one, the Mitchell City Council approved the first reading of a mask ordinance on Monday.

While the council was initially voting on the first reading of a mask ordinance that solely affected city-owned facilities, council member Susan Tjarks requested the ordinance to be reconfigured into a citywide mask mandate. That means residents inside every indoor building within the city limits would be required to wear a mask or face covering if they are unable to be at least 6 feet apart with some exceptions.

The ordinance changed after a group of Mitchell residents called for a citywide mask mandate, which affects the entire city and private business sector. The first reading of the proposed mask ordinance comes as Davison County and South Dakota have been experiencing a record number of COVID-19 cases over the past two months. According to the state Department of Health, Davison County had a total of 821 active cases on Monday, marking the highest number of active cases since the start of the pandemic.

“The most important part of this is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the lives of people around us,” Tjarks said. “I wear a mask because I care. What we have been doing has not been working.”

According to City Attorney Justin Johnson, Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson can declare an emergency executive order as early as Tuesday to authorize the ordinance and make it go into effect at that time. If Everson decides not to sign the emergency ordinance for it to be enacted, the council would vote on the second reading during a Nov. 23 special meeting. Regardless of Everson's decision, the council will meet on Nov. 23 to officially adopt the ordinance, which will allow residents to voice their opinions on the ordinance once again.

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Kody Musick, of Mitchell, is one resident who called on city officials to implement a citywide mask mandate, seeking to push the restrictions one step further. Musick recently shared a social media post asking for Mitchell residents to sign a letter in support of a citywide mask mandate and social distance regulations, which collected 402 signatures. Among the signees were a handful of local doctors and health care professionals.

“We are here tonight to call on Mayor Bob Everson to immediately implement citywide masking and distancing policies. At this point, masks in facilities are not nearly enough. Our average daily cases jumped from around 20 per day to 60 per day as of recently,” Musick said, noting Davison County’s case numbers are increasing at a rate that’s three times more than Brookings. “As one of the owners of Innovative Systems, it is getting incredibly hard to continue doing business, while losing more employees every day.”

Musick pointed to the stress that Avera Queen of Peace is under amid Davison County’s surge in cases as another factor for his support of a mask mandate in the city.

“I’ve spoken with numerous health care workers, who have been overwhelmed. And they are predicting a 50 to 100% increase in cases. They have been pleading with us to wear masks,” Musick said. “We tried the hands-off approach for months, and it is not working.”

Roughly a month ago, the council began discussing a mask policy that would affect all city-owned facilities. However, the discussion never materialized into an ordinance request until now.

Under the ordinance, there are some exceptions that include athletes and anyone engaged in a recreation activity such as basketball, hockey and swimming, who would not be required to wear a mask or face covering during their respective activity. In addition, Johnson said the ordinance also exempts children under the age of 5, individuals who have a medical condition or disability preventing them from safely wearing a mask and individuals who are eating food or drinking beverages.

Violators could be fined, and multiple violations may result in further legal ramifications. The dollar amount of the fines and further “legal actions” were not specified during Monday’s meeting and can be amended by the council.

Prior to the mask discussion, Rochelle Reider, vice president of patient services at Avera Queen of Peace, provided the council with an update on the surge in cases that’s putting stress on the local hospital. As of Monday, Reider said the hospital has 22 COVID-19 infected patients, with eight in the Intensive Care Unit. According to the state Department of Health, there have been a total of 15 deaths in Davison County thus far.

Reider said the hospital is overflowing with COVID-19 patients. According to Reider, the positivity rate of tests reached 39% in the past two months, which is significantly higher than the recommended 5% rate. Reider issued her support for a mask mandate in the city, while urging more residents to take the virus seriously.

“Intubations and deaths are happening in our hospital, but our health care team is doing amazing work,” Reider said. “We are frequently overwhelmed, and anxious about what is to come. Our health care workers are pleading that we get the word out of what is happening at the hospital.”

Dakota Wesleyan University President Amy Novak spoke in support of a mask mandate, citing the effectiveness it has had on reducing the spread of the virus at the local campus. Novak urged the council to support a mask mandate and said the recent spike in cases prompted DWU officials to extend the college’s winter break.

“To be clear, it was not an option to wear a mask on our campus, it was a mandate,” Novak said. “As of today, we have the highest positivity and quarantine rate since the onslaught of the virus. We believe this community infection rate has caused it directly to our campus.”

Citizens in opposition to mask mandates

Dwight Stadler, a Mitchell resident, spoke in opposition of a mask mandate and pushed back at the proposed ordinance. Stadler, a former service chief and emergency manager with the Veterans Health Care Administration, cited recent studies that he said have shown masks are ineffective.

Stadler said that masks commonly worn by the general public wears offer no protection against airborne pathogens because they do not provide an effective seal against airborne particulates. He noted that airborne pathogen particulates can both penetrate and cling to cloth masks and enter around the loose edges. In addition, he cited that the eyes absorb the air particulates that spread coronavirus from human to human.

“Masks do not protect the eyes... A study recently showed 84% of those who wore masks were infected,” Stadler said. “Mandating the use of masks really isn’t going to stop or reduce the spread. Recent studies have shown masks are increasing the spread rather than suppressing it.”

As businesses will be faced with abiding by the new mask restrictions, Stadler said a mask mandate would have a devastating economic impact on local businesses.

“You should know the devastating economic impact that oppressive restrictions will have on businesses,” Stadler said. “Why would any rational public official repeat such oppressive and economically devastating restrictions.”

Valerie Johnson, of Mitchell, pushed back on the proposed mask mandate, which she said would cause major challenges for her considering her husband is not capable of communicating without seeing facial expressions.

“Mandatory masks discriminate against people with communication challenges. Some people rely on facial expressions to communicate, and if my husband and I were wearing masks and needed to talk to each other, we would have to walk outside because he needs facial expression,” Johnson said. “My cousin who is a Registered Nurse has got some sort of bacterial pneumonia, and she wears it faithfully."

Reed Bender, a local resident who was recently arrested at Mitchell High School for an incident that stemmed from refusing to wear a mask on school property, reiterated his opposition to a mask mandate. Bender questioned the council about the challenges of enforcing such a mandate.

Rather than turning to a mask mandate, Bender suggested the city to aggressively encourage more residents to practice better hygiene like hand washing and using sanitizer.

“It’s not going away, and masks are not going to stop it, but we’re going to keep pushing this fear in our community,” Bender said. “We should push clean our hands, we should sanitize things, but are we going to keep locking people down and forcing mandates?” Bender asked.

As for the timeline of the mask mandate should it be approved, the ordinance will automatically be rescinded afte 60 days. However, the council could extend the ordinance, which would require another vote to do so.

Ordinance confusion

Council member Marty Barington took issue with the process of the ordinance changing from a “city facility” to a “citywide” mandate in the short notice that it was changed.

Since the ordinance was changed and amended during Monday night’s meeting without a public notice that allotted 24 hours for other residents to express their opinions on the proposed mandate, Barington requested to have the first reading changed to Nov. 23. But Barington’s request was squelched, as the council voted on the first reading during Monday night’s meeting.

“We always need to give our citizens their right to voice their opinions and give feedback on an ordinance, and this ordinance was incorrectly published to our citizens. And now we want to make a change tonight?” Barington said. “I believe there is another side that has a right to get on that podium and speak to us eight council members. They are not here tonight because they were not aware of it because of the way it was written and published.”