With a health official Tuesday reporting two more Morgan County deaths from COVID-19, some Decatur City Council members are considering an ordinance requiring residents to wear masks in certain situations.
"It's not on the (Alabama Department of Public Health) dashboard at this point, but soon you will find out that Morgan County has had two more deaths," Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said at a press conference Tuesday morning. "That is tragic. I want to say my heart goes out to these two families." The dashboard is an ADPH website that tracks cases and deaths throughout the state.
ADPH has previously reported two other Morgan County deaths.
Decatur Morgan Hospital had 25 COVID-19 inpatients as of Tuesday afternoon. A month ago it had four.
Councilman Billy Jackson said he believes some form of ordinance is necessary to increase mask use in Decatur and decrease spread of the virus.
“I think it’s time, if people aren’t going to take the necessary precautions, that we implement something like this. It’s the council’s responsibility to make sure that the health and well-being of our citizens is at its highest point,” Jackson said.
Some Alabama municipalities require residents to wear masks, including Montgomery by executive order of the mayor and Birmingham and Union Springs by ordinance.
The state attorney general in April issued guidance advising that mayors have limited authority and city councils have broad authority under a state law to mandate public safety measures authorizing actions “to prevent the introduction of contagious, infectious, or pestilential diseases into such cities or towns.”
Lori Lein, an attorney for the Alabama League of Municipalities, said some municipalities have contacted the league recently as they consider mask ordinances.
“Typically it’s got to be done via action by the council, by ordinance,” Lein said. “But the simple answer is they can do it, they just need to do it the right way.”
Jackson said he would like to see an ordinance aimed at businesses and public venues, not specifically at residents. The ordinance he envisions would mandate that certain types of businesses require both their employees and customers to wear masks.
“It’s a tough decision, but I think it’s one that we’ll need to implement. Every convenience store, every place that has a business license to operate, we should be able to regulate,” he said. “This is a time of crisis. It’s not something you want to do — you would hope that people would take care of these issues for themselves — but I think we should be able to require that store owners put up signs saying masks are required.
"It would fall on the business itself to say, ‘We’ve got to adhere to this ordinance so you’ve got to adhere to it when you’re on our property.’”
He said he is contemplating an ordinance similar to the smoking ordinance, which was expressly focused on protecting nonsmokers. Unlike the smoking ordinance, however, he said he does not know how a mask ordinance could be applied to restaurants.
“It’s very unfortunate that you have to legislate something like this, but people won’t do it for themselves,” he said.
As Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, points out, several recent studies have shown reductions in transmission of the coronavirus with mask use.
“People can transmit COVID-19 even when they don’t realize they have it, and if you are wearing a mask you are less likely to transmit the virus through coughing, through sneezing or even through breathing … . The other thing masks do is protect you if you’re wearing one from getting exposed to the virus through other people doing those things.”
She said COVID-19 outbreaks in Italy, Spain and New York City have been brought under control through widespread mask use.
“When we look at how masks have contributed to the control of this pandemic in other communities, it’s been really remarkable. When you combine the use of masks with physical distancing … we know that we can really shut down community transmission of this virus,” she said.
Union Springs, a small town in Bullock County that’s been hard hit by the virus, passed an ordinance that took effect June 15 that generally requires residents to wear face coverings when in public places. Mayor Saint Thomas Jr. said he and the council were concerned about enforcement, but it has not been a problem. He said people understood the reason for the ordinance.
“It’s working really well. The citizens are cooperating. We haven’t had any problem with enforcing it. The people are just starting to wear the masks when they’re walking the city streets and going to the shopping centers. They’re wearing them without any problem,” Thomas said.
The ordinance calls for a $25 fine for violations, but Thomas said the town has yet to issue a ticket.
“I told the (police) chief not to be running anybody down about a dang mask, but it hasn't been an issue. People are wearing them freely,” he said.
Both Decatur City Council President Paige Bibbee and Councilman Charles Kirby fear an ordinance may become necessary if cases and hospitalizations continue to increase locally, but they want to see if the upward trend continues.
Bibbee worries that enforcement could create a burden on police and the courts.
She said at this point she prefers a strongly worded resolution recommending mask use, but she is not sure that will be enough.
“I always hate to fine people if we can get around it. But if we give it 10 days, 14 days, and if it continues to rise, then I think at that point we have to do something,” Bibbee said. “We have a duty to protect the safety of everybody in all of the districts of the city of Decatur. With the medical community telling us that if everyone wore these in public it would reduce the percentage of people impacted, then yes, we have to do it eventually.
“I would never make a mandate requiring masks just because we could, but at this point I think it’s a matter of not just protecting the person wearing the mask; you’re protecting everyone else.”
Kirby said the concept of mandating that businesses and public venues require patrons to wear masks sounds good, but in his role as liaison to the Decatur Public Library board — which reopened with restrictions June 15 — he realized there were hurdles. He said the board considered denying entrance to any patron not wearing a mask.
“But how can you be the mask police? If they had someone who insisted on coming in, they’d have to shut down and not let any more patrons come in. And even that conversation involves a confrontation where you could get infected,” Kirby said.
While he sees problems with an ordinance requiring masks, Kirby agreed with Bibbee and Jackson that it may become necessary.
“There is a point at which we’d need an ordinance, but I’m not sure how you put parameters on that,” he said.
Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers said in an emailed statement that ADPH recommends face coverings, along with social distancing and hand hygiene.
“ADPH understands that some communities have adopted ordinances for face coverings and supports community leaders in making decisions to protect their citizens,” she said.
Jackson said he recognizes not everyone wants to wear a mask in public and that there could be resistance to an ordinance.
“It’s going to take a community effort to enforce it, but I think that’s where we are now,” Jackson said. “I don’t want my family members and your family members and people who are trying to safeguard themselves from this virus to succumb to it because somebody refuses to take precautions.”
He said he knows two people who died of COVID-19.
Smith said she's frustrated that the disease is having an enormous impact on some, while others decline to take basic steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others.
"A lot of businesses have gone under," Smith said. "A lot of folks have lost jobs, particularly in the food service industry. A lot of loved ones, particularly in nursing homes, don't get visited by the people that they love. There's a lot of helplessness, a lot of homelessness. And all we're asking is to please wear a mask. Well geez, is it that hard?"