After a fiery debate between residents who oppose the city’s mask mandate and those in favor, the Mitchell City Council narrowly approved the citywide mask ordinance on Monday night.
While the modified mask ordinance was approved in a 5-3 vote, Council member Marty Barington cited his belief in civil liberties as the main reason he voted against the mandate. Barington criticized the mask mandate, calling it a government overreach that strips residents of their Constitutional rights, emphasizing that wearing a mask should be a choice that each individual has the right to make, not a legal requirement like the city’s ordinance is.
“I totally respect all the frontline workers, but I’m going to stand behind the military soldier who spoke, as I don’t think it’s my right to sit here and take the right away from others. That gentleman said it perfectly how he defended our country to give us the individual rights that we have in this country,” Barington said. “I believe businesses have the right to say no masks, no service. We shouldn’t have to tell them how to operate their business, and the majority of businesses I believe do not want us to tell them how to run their business.”
Council members Kevin McCardle and Jeff Smith joined Barington in voting against the mandate, pointing to the enforcement issues that it may cause and the potential of the mandate impeding local businesses operation. That meant Council members Dan Allen, Susan Tjarks, Dan Sabers and John Doescher approved the ordinance, narrowly avoiding Mayor Bob Everson to make the tie-breaking vote.
“Do I know if masks are going to help? No. I’m trusting the medical professionals and what they say,” Sabers said. “I’m putting my trust in the experts, just as I do with everything. I hope it helps.”
Over the past week, a petition from residents opposing the citywide mask mandate collected 511 signatures. Prior to the Nov. 16 council meeting when the first citywide mask mandate was proposed, a petition in favor of a mandate collected 402 signatures.
Jason Bates, owner of Big Dummy’s Bar in downtown Mitchell, was among the residents who signed the petition in opposition to the mask mandate. Considering the challenges local businesses have been facing since the pandemic hit the area in March, Bates said the mask mandate will be another hardship that businesses take on.
“I am not against masks, and I have no problem with people wearing them. But I have heard there are a lot of people going to Sioux Falls to spend their money and shop after the mask mandate,” Bates said. “Your decisions are what affects small businesses with jobs and the local economy. When you shut businesses down, it killed small businesses and many of them haven’t recovered and never will.”
Monday’s council meeting came after Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson issued an emergency executive order on Tuesday, Nov. 17 that mandated residents to wear masks inside buildings within city limits if 6 feet of separation isn’t able to be maintained, along with several additional exceptions. The council had yet to vote on the second reading of the mask ordinance at the time of this story being published.
Mark Strong, a Mitchell resident, spoke out against the mask mandate, largely due to the increase in cases in countries and states that have implemented mandates.
“There are also people who are smarter than I am in the community who do not support a mask mandate,” Strong said. “The places around the world and the states where mask mandates have been implemented have seen cases go way up.”
Jonathan Wilson, a Mitchell resident, who recently moved to Mitchell from Washington state. Wilson said he moved to Mitchell recently to regain his freedoms since South Dakota has had a relatively non-restrictive response to COVID-19.
Wilson cited studies that he said proves masks are ineffective.
“There has been a study on masks recently in Denmark, and the consensus of the study was that they were not effective,” Wilson said. “The countries like Spain that have been mandating masks have been having cases that are getting out of control. There is science data that says masks are ineffective.”
As Davison County has been experiencing its biggest surge in COVID-19 cases over the past month, the council has turned their attention to mask-wearing as a measure to slow the spread. As of Monday, Davison County had a total of 770 active cases and 28 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Active cases dropped below the county’s record of 868 that occurred on Friday.
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, the ordinance exempts children ages 5 and under, individuals who have a medical condition or disability preventing them from safely wearing a mask and individuals who are eating food or drinking beverages.
Residents in favor of a mandate
Amid Davison County’s spike in coronavirus cases, a group of residents have called on city officials to order a citywide mask mandate. Kody Musick, of Mitchell, is leading the group of residents in support of a mask mandate.
Officials with Avera Queen of Peace hospital spoke again on Monday, urging the council to approve the mandate.
According to Rochelle Reider, vice president of patient services at Avera Queen of Peace, Davison County has had over 800 positive cases since Nov. 1, marking the largest increase since the start of the pandemic. Reider said the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests have hovered around 39% in the past two months, which is significantly higher than the recommended 5% rate.
Chris Lippert, a registered nurse at Avera Queen of Peace hospital, spoke in support of the mandate and gave the council a glimpse of the challenges he’s been dealing with taking care of COVID-19 patients.
“We have staff in the hospital working 60-plus hours per week trying to keep up with the demands at the hospital,” Lippert said, questioning how one can ignore the severity of the virus. “The number of COVID-19 patients aren’t only affecting the patients we’re dealing with, they are affecting our employees."
In addition, Lippert highlighted the stress that Avera Queen of Peace is under with the increase in cases. Lippert closed his speech, urging the council to enforce the mandate with legal penalties.
Kim Mohr, a nurse and nursing instructor at Mitchell Technical College, voiced her support for the mandate, citing the overwhelming evidence that she said shows masks are effective.
“I am here to be a voice for the nurses, and you won’t see many here because they are tired and they're at the point of breaking,” Mohr said. “We are not fearmongers. We are your last line of defense, and it has shifted to you now. We need your help. A consequence has to be tied to the mandate.”
Among the notable changes that the council made to the mask mandate included reducing the maximum fine for the penalty and including face shields as acceptable masks.
For violators, the council approved changing the fine amount as part of the maximum penalty to an undetermined dollar figure, which will depend on the court costs that the city accrues in its prosecution against mask violators. Previously, the council was proposing to have a maximum penalty for the violators that includes a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
“When sentencing for a violation of this ordinance, the total fines and court costs shall include a fine representing the city’s fine of $0. This amount may be amended by the City Council by resolution at any time,” said City Attorney Justin Johnson, who drafted the ordinance. “There is a penalty, so I think it does at least provide some additional incentive for people to comply with the ordinance.”
Another change that was proposed came from Council member Rice, who asked to have churches exempt from the mandate, which gained support from Tjarks.
However, Smith didn’t support exempting churches from the mandate, noting it wouldn’t be fair to pick and choose which establishments will be exempt from the ordinance. Despite Rice and Tjarks' vote to approve exempting churches, it was denied 6-2.
Smith closed the meeting by encouraging everyone to continue practicing social distance and CDC guidelines, while providing an explanation to his vote against the mandate.
"We are taking rights from people, and I'm not comfortable doing the same thing," Smith said. "Our numbers have been improving, but I think it's working because we are now talking about this more."