Mitchell’s mask mandate will end on Jan. 27 as the Mitchell City Council decided Tuesday night to let the ordinance expire.

After public commentary, councilman John Doescher made a motion to extend the mandate by 30 days, which was seconded by councilman Dan Sabers. The council split 4-4 during its meeting at City Hall, and Mayor Bob Everson broke the tie with a "no" vote, which ultimately puts an end to the two-month ordinance.

While Steve Rice was among the five council members who approved the mandate on Nov. 23, his vote switched on Tuesday night, as he chose not to extend the mandate for another 30 days. Rice pointed to the equal rates of decreased COVID-19 cases in like-sized South Dakota counties that had a mask mandate in place and those didn’t as a major factor for opposing the ordinance extension.

“The question I have is that we put a mandate in place and the numbers went down. So people were saying the mandate was cause and effect. But then that means if there isn’t a mandate in place in other counties, then the numbers shouldn’t go down like ours did. Whether there was a mandate or not, they all went down the same rate,” Rice said. “My issue isn't with mask-wearing, it's with the mandate. I have a problem based on the comparisons that a mandate is the correct thing to do.”

Mayor Everson backed Rice, noting Brown County, which holds the city of Aberdeen, has not implemented a mask mandate during the pandemic. However, Everson said its numbers have fallen at a rate nearly equal to Davison County’s cases in the past two months.

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Joining Rice in voting against the mandate were Councilmen Kevin McCardle, Jeff Smith and Marty Barington. Dan Allen, Susan Tjarks, Doescher and Sabers voted in favor of extending the mandate another 30 days.

The council’s decision to implement the citywide mask mandate on Nov. 23 — which required masks or face coverings to be worn in all indoor buildings when 6 feet of separation is not achievable — was met with mixed reactions from the community.

Among the Mitchell residents who supported the mandate included many local doctors and healthcare professionals. Hilary Rockwell, emergency physician at Avera Queen of Peace, urged the council to stay the course and continue the mask ordinance until more residents are vaccinated.

“From a health care perspective, it should continue,” Rockwell said of the mask mandate. “We have seen numbers drop, but we’re not out of the woods. We still need to get all of our highest risk population vaccinated.”

Since the mandate went into effect, new and active cases have steadily dropped in Davison County. Active cases were hovering around 800 when the mask ordinance was approved, but have since fallen to 99 as of Tuesday, according to the State Department of Health. Since the start of the pandemic, Davison County has recorded a total of 2,854 COVID-19 infections.

Council member Susan Tjarks, who has been perhaps the strongest advocate of masking, pointed to the steady drop in active and new cases as a reason to extend the ordinance.

“I feel like if we go against this, we are going against the advice of our hospital systems, Avera and Sanford, and I’m not confident enough to do that,” Tjarks said.

However, Sonja VanErdewyk, a former registered nurse, said the city’s mask mandate is not responsible for the decline in COVID-19 cases that Davison County experienced the past two months. VanErdewyk noted cases were already falling several days before the council adopted the mask ordinance, which she said proved the state as a whole was coming down from its peak.

“We know in mid-November, Mitchell hit their COVID-19 peak. To say that the mask did that would be erroneous,” VanErdewyk said. “There were also a large number of deaths in the nursing homes that are full of staff and residents who wear all sorts of protective equipment such as masks and face shields, which shows that the masks are not effective.”

Mark Strong, a local resident, voiced his opposition to extending the mask ordinance, citing the lack of effectiveness and divisive rhetoric its created in the community.

“I think the state of California alone shows you how ineffective masks are,” Strong said. “California has over 95% mask compliance, and they have had one of the nation’s worst spikes lately.”

Dave Lambert, interim director of the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, relayed survey results from local businesses that are members with the MADC, asking whether they supported a 30-day extension.

Among the businesses that participated in the survey, Lambert said 120 supported extending the mask mandate by 30 days, and 89 disapproved of an extension, marking a 53% approval to extend the ordinance.

“At this point, the business community feels the mask mandate extending for 30 days will not affect business,” Lambert said. “We think that the survey speaks for itself.”

While the MADC survey showed participants supported the mask ordinance, during Tuesday’s meeting, there were seven residents who spoke in opposition of extending the mask ordinance, while one was in favor.

— To read more Mitchell City Council stories by reporter Sam Fosness, click here.