Although the Mitchell City Council narrowly approved the citywide mask ordinance on Monday night, it came up against opposition from residents who sounded off on the mandate.
Following a heated debate between residents who oppose the mandate and those in favor, Council member Marty Barington cast one of the three votes to deny the mask mandate, pointing to it as a government overreach that strips residents of their constitutional rights and civil liberties. Despite the pushback that the ordinance came up against Monday night at the Corn Palace, the council approved it with a 5-3 vote.
“I totally respect all the frontline workers, but I’m going to stand behind that military soldier who spoke because I don’t think it’s my right to sit here and take away a right from others. He defended our country to give us these 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 Jeff Smith and Kevin McCardle joined Barington in voting against the mandate, echoing their support to give each individual their right to choose whether they want to wear a mask. McCardle’s opposition also centered around the enforcement process of the mandate, which he said will put more stress on local law enforcement officers and divert them away from fighting “real crime.”
“I talked to our local police officers this past weekend, and they had 59 calls they had to respond to for serious things. They are plenty busy the way they are, and chasing someone around without a mask on when they have to respond to a drug addict beating up their girlfriend, for example, is more important,” McCardle said. “I’m looking out for our police officers.”
Despite the pushback on Monday night, Council member Dan Sabers said he voted in favor of the mask ordinance largely due to local health care professionals recommending a mask mandate.
“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. What we have been doing hasn’t been working. Our numbers have been getting horrible.”
Sabers was joined by Council members Dan Allen, Susan Tjarks, Steve Rice and John Doescher, who all voted to approve the mandate on Monday.
With the 5-3 approval, Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson avoided having to make the tie-breaking vote Monday at the Corn Palace. While Everson has stated he does not support a mask mandate, rather he strongly recommends residents to wear masks, he issued an emergency executive order similar to the council's ordinance after a growing number of council members supported the mandate. The executive order has been in place since Nov. 17.
The mandate requires individuals inside every indoor building within the city limits to wear a mask or face covering if they are unable to maintain 6 feet of separation, along with several other exceptions. Under the ordinance, individuals engaged in a recreation activity such as basketball, hockey and swimming, would not be required to wear a mask or face covering during activity.
The ordinance also 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. Another caveat for those who have a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states “a public entity or private business may not ask about the nature or extent of an individual's disability,” which was a question that surfaced Monday night.
As for the timeline of the mask mandate, the ordinance will automatically be rescinded after 60 days. However, the council could extend the ordinance, which would require another vote to do so. In addition, the council may repeal the ordinance at any time between following their approval, according to City Attorney Justin Johnson.
Residents against the mask mandate
For many residents opposing the mandate, Monday’s meeting was the first opportunity they had to speak on the mask ordinance since it was first proposed during the Nov. 16 council meeting without a 24 hour notice that is usually allotted for citizens input.
Over the past 24 hours, a petition from residents opposing the citywide mask mandate collected 560 signatures, roughly 150 more than the petition in favor of the mandate that was presented to the council prior to the Nov. 16 meeting that saw 402. Since the Nov. 16 meeting, another petition in favor of a mask rule gained roughly 522 signatures over the past week. Combined, the petitions in support of a mandate received 924 signatures, as of Monday. Both petitions in favor and against are still circulating and can be presented at future council meetings.
John Foster, owner of The Depot Pub and Grill, spoke about how the decrease in business at his downtown restaurant since the executive order went into effect on Nov. 17. At the rate it’s been going since the mandate has been in effect, Foster said the loss of business will likely force him to lay off some staff in order to cover operational expenses.
“Last Tuesday, our business turned south. It wasn’t a gentle curve, it just dropped off to nothing,” Foster said. “Everyday since last Tuesday, we’ve had a 40% to 45% decrease in sales. My power bill doesn’t go down when I lose volume in business. The only thing I can do is cut my payroll and hurt the very people who take care of us as a business, and we’ve had to cut it by 40% or more. That cuts jobs, income and these people have young children.”
Mack Miiller, a Mitchell resident currently serving in the military, pushed back on the ordinance and emphasized every individual has the right to choose whether they wear a mask. Miiller cautioned the council to consider the economic impact the mask mandate will have on local businesses.
“I’ve done two tours overseas and missed my children's first day of school for this country, and I made them suffer so that I can fulfill my dream to serve this country so that we can have freedom and individual rights,” Miiller said. “There is an Inherent risk that these fine people (business owners) took to create jobs in the community, and you guys are taking that away. I’m not a criminal and once worked in law enforcement in town and have a clean background, but yet if I forget to wear a mask I’m instantly labeled because of you.”
Since mask-wearing has become the new norm around the country and in the area, Debra Emme and Melissa Sigmund, both of Mitchell, said they have been victimized for not wearing a mask due to their disabilities that prevent them from safely wearing one.
“I am overweight. I have asthma. And since this all started I have lost 80 pounds and tried making changes to better my health. But wearing those masks make me feel like I am getting choked out,” an emotional Emme said to the council. “I have been called a lot of names since I passed a petition around. I am here speaking for the people who cannot speak for fear of retribution.”
Mask supporters urging for mandate
In the midst of Davison County’s recent surge in coronavirus cases, a group of residents 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. As of Monday, Davison County had a total of 770 active cases and 28 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Since the Nov. 17 mandate, active cases dropped below the county’s record of 868, which occurred on Friday three days into the mandate.
“I want to thank the council and Mayor Everson for taking immediate and effective action last week. Around town, I have personally noticed a significant increase in the number of masks,” Musick said. “You should be proud of your actions so far. This ordinance is working, and let’s not move in the wrong direction. Avera has been pleading with us to wear masks, and it has not worked.”
Among the local residents who signed Musick’s petition in favor of a mask mandate were local doctors and health care professionals with Avera Queen of Peace hospital. During Monday’s meeting, several of those health care professionals spoke to the council and encouraged the governmental body to pass an enforceable mask mandate.
Nathel Cody, registered nurse with Avera Health, pointed to the mandate as one piece of the puzzle to slow the spread of coronavirus. Cody manages over 40 employees who care for over 300 patients around the area. According to Cody, Avera’s COVID-19 transition program had a total of 1,300 patients.
“During this pandemic, we’re keeping patients out of the hospital by providing patients with care at their home… Many of these people should be in the hospital, and normally they probably would be. But in the case we’re in now, we do not have room for them," Cody said.
Cody gave the council a glimpse of the stress that the local hospital and health care providers have been under lately. As Cody’s staff cares for COVID-19 patients in hospice, they have dealt with five deaths in the past three days.
“We know masks are not the cure all and are not going to fix this, but it is an important piece of the puzzle to slow the spread," Cody said.
After dealing with the constant stress and pressure to keep up with the influx of COVID-19 patients being admitted into the hospital, Registered Nurse Chris Lippert urged the council to approve the mandate.
“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."
Among the notable changes that the council made to the mask mandate included reducing the maximum fine for the penalty and adding 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 that will depend on the court costs that the city accrues in its prosecution against mask violators. Johnson said the city's court fees for a violation of the mask mandate could hover around $90. 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 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.”
Rice requested to exempt churches from the mandate, which gained support from Tjarks. However, Smith said it wouldn’t be fair to pick and choose which establishments will be exempt from the ordinance, leading to a 6-2 vote to deny church exemptions. That means all individuals attending church, regardless of whether they are family members, must wear a mask if they are unable to maintain 6 feet of distance from another.
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."