Mitchell has a citywide mask mandate following Mayor Bob Everson’s emergency executive order Tuesday. The city joins Brookings and Huron as South Dakota large municipalities with mask mandates.

Following the Mitchell City Council’s approval of the first reading of an ordinance on Monday that requires masks or face coverings to be worn inside all buildings within city limits, Everson was faced with the option to issue an executive order that would make the mask mandate effective immediately. After opting to move forward with the mandate, Everson said his decision was based on the council’s support to do so. The mask mandate is effective immediately.

The measure means all individuals 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, along with several other exceptions. 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.

“The majority of the council wants to see the mask ordinance go into effect as soon as possible, so I am moving forward with the decision to do so,” Everson told the Mitchell Republic on Tuesday. “There have been a lot of complaints coming in today at City Hall since the mask ordinance was proposed, and they will have an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns on Monday, Nov. 23.”

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While a group of Mitchell residents -- which includes a handful of local doctors and health care professionals -- urged the council to implement a citywide mask mandate at Monday night’s meeting, it sparked opposition from residents.

Heading into Monday’s meeting, the council was initially voting on the first reading of a mask ordinance that solely affected city-owned facilities. But City Council member Susan Tjarks requested the ordinance to be reconfigured into a citywide mask mandate during the meeting.

The ordinance changed after a group of Mitchell residents called for the mandate, which affects the entire city and private business sector. The proposed mask mandate surfaced 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 858 active cases, 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.”

Council member John Doescher shared Tjarks' sentiment on the urgency of implementing a citywide mask ordinance as soon as possible, pointing to the surge in COVID-19 cases that Davison County has been battling with over the past two months.

“I don’t want to wait five days for the second reading, because five days is another 500 people who can get infected,” Doescher said.

According to Rochelle Reider, vice president of patient services at Avera Queen of Peace, Davison County has had over 700 positive cases since Nov. 1, marking the largest increase since the start of the pandemic. Reider said the positivity rate of tests reached 39% in the past two months, which is significantly higher than the recommended 5% rate.

Reider gave the council a glimpse of the stress that the local hospital has been facing amid the recent spike in cases. As of Monday, Redier said 22 patients were hospitalized at Avera Queen of Peace hospital, and eight of those patients were in the Intensive Care Unit.

“We are caring for more than twice our average patient volumes, and the COVID-19 pateints are sicker and much more time intense than a typical ICU or medical non-COVID-19 patient,” Reider said during an update she provided to the council on Monday. “We are frequently overwhelmed, and anxious about what is to come.”

Citizens supporting a mask mandate

In the midst of Davison County’s coronavirus surge, a group of residents calling for a citywide mask mandate formed.

Kody Musick, of Mitchell, is one resident who is leading that group and calling on city officials to implement a citywide mask mandate. 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.”

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 on the local campus. Novak urged the council to support a mask mandate and said the 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.”

Dr. Lucio Margallo, internal medicine physician with Avera Queen of Peace, echoed his support for a mask mandate, highlighting the severity of the virus that’s killed 15 Davison County residents.

“Before I came here, I heard really sad news that one of our Mitchell friends passed away. It’s never too late to wear masks. One life lost is too many,” Margallo said.

Ordinance rules

Under the ordinance, there are some exceptions that include athletes engaged in a recreation activity such as basketball, hockey and swimming, who would not be required to wear a mask or face covering during activity. In addition, Johnson said the ordinance also exempts children under the age 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.

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

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 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.

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.”