After a lengthy and heated discussion that included public comment from parents, school board members and local law enforcement, the Emporia City Commission adopted a mandatory mask ordinance, Wednesday afternoon.
The ordinance will go into effect upon publication in The Emporia Gazette and will remain in place through Sept. 16. It requires a mask or other face covering that covers both the nose and mouth to be worn in public spaces — both indoors and outdoors — when social distancing of at least 6-feet apart is not possible. Public space is defined as any indoor or outdoor space or area that is open to the public, and does not include private residential or private office or workspaces that are closed to customers and public visitors.
Businesses, organizations and non-profits located within the city must now require all employees, visitors, customers, members and non-members to wear a mask and face covering.
The city’s ordinance includes exemptions for children ages 5 and under, people with medical conditions or disability that make mask wearing a difficulty, the hearing impaired, people for whom wearing a face covering will create risks at work, people seated at restaurants or other establishments serving food and beverages that maintain 6-feet of distance between customers, athletes engaged in some sports activities, court-related proceedings held or managed by the Kansas Judiciary, persons engaged in professional or recreational activities that have been deemed by public-health that masks cannot be worn for safety reasons.
Violations will be punishable with a fine of $25 for first time offenders, $50 for the second violation and $100 for the third and subsequent violation plus court costs.
City Attorney Christina Montgomery reviewed similar mandatory mask ordinances from other cities in the region including Wichita, Hays, Salina and Manhattan.
Commissioner Becky Smith raised concerns over how those violations would be handled and voiced frustration in the “lack of transparency” involved with the ordinance, which was just added to the commission agenda Wednesday morning.
“I feel like we need to take a breath so we can listen to our constituents and be transparent about this,” she said. “I don’t know if my small businesses, my large businesses, my ‘average Joe’ — my phone has been blowing up with pros and cons. I just want to be transparent and it’s almost sneaky to get this in today.”
The rush to get the ordinance passed was due in part to the upcoming return of Emporia State University students and the start of the 2020-21 school year for PreK-12 students in local schools. Smith said she understood those concerns, but wondered why those concerns were just now being brought to the city commission.
“I understand they were disappointed with the county but that was the end of June,” Smith said. “I understand the students are going to filter out through town, but I want to be more transparent.”
Smith also voiced concerns about overtaxing Emporia Police and the Lyon County Emergency Communications Center with 911 calls related to mask violations. To that, Interim-Police Chief Ed Owens also voiced some concerns on behalf of the EPD and the dispatch center. Owens said law enforcement has had to look at a lot of operational items regarding enforcement of city ordinances as a result of the pandemic. This could add another layer of confusion to the mix.
“We are concerned with the inundation of calls to our dispatch center,” he said, adding that much of what is in the ordinance is already being practiced. “We’re practicing that now, this would just be in writing. People can walk down the street without a mask on as long as they’re handling their social distancing.”
Owens said he would recommend businesses and organizations “self-police” when it comes to the ordinance and use their judgement on when it is necessary to call EPD for assistance. If someone comes in and refuses to wear a mask and then refuses to leave, at that point they would be criminally trespassing on top of violating the new ordinance. Otherwise, Owens said it was absolutely not acceptable to call 911 over mask violations.
“That does not constitute calling 911,” he said. “I think a lot of it falls upon our local businesses and I’m like everyone — I hate to see our small businesses in town, our local businesses, suffer during this pandemic. It’s been horrible to watch.”
Commissioner Susan Brinkman also questioned the timing of the ordinance’s delivery to city commissioners, stating she had not received the document to read until Wednesday morning. She also questioned why the ordinance was originally set to expire Oct. 7 and how that date calculated.
Commissioner Jon Geitz said that was around 60 days after Wednesday’s meeting and halfway through ESU’s fall semester. By that time, he said, it should be clear the mask mandate is working.
“How will we know?” Brinkman countered. “What are the metrics? What are the numbers? I have asked this question over and over and over.”
After some discussion, commissioners agreed to move the ordinance’s end date to Sept. 16.
Geitz said this was an ordinance that should never have come to the Emporia City Commissioners to decide, rather it should have been made on a state or county level.
“I would suggest constituents contact their county commissioners, their Kansas legislators, their Kansas congressional delegation and ask why this came down to a city-by-city decision,” he said, adding that he also did not like having an ordinance come across his desk for a decision on the same day it was received. But, Geitz said he also believed this was an issue that needed to be resolved rather than put off for another week.
Commissioner Rob Gilligan agreed.
“I would argue that the ordinance may be a surprise, but the conversation shouldn’t be,” he said. “As soon as the county declined the governor’s order a month ago, I reached out to our city attorney. I asked for a draft ordinance. I never received a draft ordinance for us to talk about. ... I have been asking this for four weeks.”
Gilligan said to delay a vote on the ordinance would be a failure to show leadership. The statewide mandate should have been accepted at the least, and it should have been a federal mandate, he said. And, if it was just about metrics, Gilligan said Lyon County should still have a mask mandate even with zero active cases in case someone from outside the area comes to town with COVID-19.
“Wearing masks and requiring people to wear masks helps to limit the risk of that situation,” he said. “I agree, this is not the best way for us to do it, getting an ordinance an hour before or six hours before or a day before. I would argue that delaying action to respond to a global pandemic for five months is a bad way to show community leadership. I think that the entire state of Kansas has done that and government at all levels has done that.”
Mayor Danny Giefer said he also felt bad springing an ordinance into an action session on short notice, but the importance of the issue could not be ignored.
“There’s a lot of people ahead of us that should have stepped up to the plate,” Giefer said. “It discourages me that they didn’t. I don’t like wearing masks. Like everyone else, I’d like to get back to normal. But, I haven’t heard any statistics that say that the masks don’t help and that’s from the president on down.”
Owens encouraged the community to respect the mask ordinance.
“The last five months have been tough in a lot of different ways,” Owens said. “Be mindful, take some self-responsibility in actions that you present when you’re in public. It’s really not that difficult. I’ll be the first to say that I’m really not a fan of wearing masks but guess what? When I go somewhere and I need to be mindful of my surroundings, I put one on. It’s that simple.”