The Decatur City Council on Monday settled in general terms on a face covering ordinance with a fine for violations of up to $500 and no jail time, but a vote is likely still at least two meetings away.

If approved, the Police Department would first educate the potential violator of the importance of masks in reducing the spread of COVID-19, then warn that person and then issue a citation, Police Chief Nate Allen said at the council work session.

Municipal Judge Billy Cook would have the authority to determine the fine, which could range from $1 to $500, the council agreed.

They also agreed they don’t want jail time for anyone cited for not wearing a mask. However, not paying the ordered fine could lead to a failure-to-appear charge, and they can be charged with trespassing if they refuse to leave a business at the request of the owner, Allen said.

The Decatur council’s consideration of a mandatory mask ordinance follows the lead of Alabama’s biggest cities, including Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile and Tuscaloosa.

With the support of the Madison and Huntsville mayors and the commission chairman, the Madison County Health Department issued a mandatory mask order Monday that takes effect today.

Council President Paige Bibbee reviewed the Madison County order, and Councilman Billy Jackson said it’s similar to the ordinances approved by other cities.

Bibbee said she would prefer that the Morgan County Health Department issue the same order, taking the burden off the cities and creating a more regional solution.

Before the council meeting, Anita Walden, Decatur Morgan Hospital's chief nursing officer, and Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Northern District, expressed support for a mask ordinance. 

“I’m completely in support, no question," Walden said at a news conference Monday. "We have asked people to wear a mask from day one. I don’t think about this as infringing upon my rights; when I don’t wear a mask, I’m infringing on your rights. I’m getting you sick, and that’s not OK.” 

Smith said a mandatory mask ordinance makes sense from a health perspective “simply because people are not following the rules. ... I guess it’s a form of tough love.”

Smith said something has to be done and a mask “is the only temporary vaccine that we have and it is probably one of the simplest but most effective tools we have in our toolbox. You know it’s just wrong not to use it, so you know I guess as a health professional I would continue to encourage that we do whatever it takes to get people to abide by the rules and protect themselves and each other.”

Three council members said they support a mandatory mask ordinance — Bibbee, Jackson and Charles Kirby. Jackson brought up the issue and has been the most vocal.

“We need something to act as a safeguard for our citizens because the (coronavirus) numbers aren’t going down,” Jackson said.

Bibbee said she wants some questions answered by medical professionals, such as the age at which masks should be mandatory. The current version of the ordinance says those over 2 years old should wear a mask, although it includes several exceptions based on health and activities.

However, council members Chuck Ard and Kristi Hill said they only favor requiring a mask in city government buildings.

“Government buildings are the only place where I think we have the authority to mandate masks,” Ard said.

Ard and Mayor Tab Bowling said they opposed mandatory masks because they worry about the impact on local businesses that are already struggling because of pandemic-related restrictions.

“Personally, I believe everyone should have to wear a mask,” Ard said. “Most businesses have been hurt already and they don't have deep pockets. I worry that requiring masks will further hurt their business if people shop elsewhere. They have bills to pay and, if we reduce their business, they won't be able to meet them.

"We've got to slow down the spread of the virus, but a person has a right to be able to put food on the table.”

Many of the same people who were vocal last week against a mandatory mask ordinance returned this week.

Elizabeth McFadden, of Terrehaute Avenue Southwest, said she opposes a mandatory mask ordinance. She also said she doesn’t believe masks are effective against any virus.

“It’s unfair to me to be responsible for my own health and someone else’s health,” McFadden said. “That’s not freedom for me and that’s not freedom for someone else.”

The council agreed to hold a called meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday to introduce a proposed ordinance. With two council members opposing the ordinance, unanimous consent for an immediate vote is unlikely. It therefore probably will have to be held for another meeting. They did not discuss a time for a follow-up meeting.

City Attorney Herman Marks said the city clerk has 48 hours to present the council-approved ordinance to the mayor, who then has 10 days to amend it, veto it or approve it.

Bowling has not vetoed a vote during his first term, and it takes a two-thirds vote of the council to override an ordinance veto.

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bayne.hughes@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes. Staff Writer Cassie Kuhn contributed to this story.

(7) comments

Sam Cat

I am still deeply disturbed that as much emphasis Government is putting on Social Distancing and wearing masks to combat this virus . . . not one single entity came out in opposition of all the protesters who packed the streets like sardines. Regardless if the protests were peaceful or not, masks and social distancing was completely out the window and all these people apparently received a "BYE" because God knows they have rights and we can't hurt their feelings or hold them to the same standards that our leaders try to hold us too.

Richard Crow

$500 fine? Are you kidding me? The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive fines. I would think the council should give this some thought. Also, how will a judge determine the fine to be $1 for one person and $500 for another?

LYNARD PATTERSON

I am with you. If this ordinance finally passes I will definitely avoid shopping Decatur. Not because of the mask, because of this councils arrogance to pass this ordinance. Give the men in blue something else to do. Glad to see them do away with jail time, just like to know what they will do if someone can't pay the fine. Once again, who is going to supply masks since you can't purchase them at your local Walmart or Target?

JERRY MITCHELL

I honestly can't believe that an ordinance has to be passed to ensure people wear masks in public to help protect themselves and their fellow citizens against a virus we have no vaccine for! It has nothing to do with constitutional rights but simply common sense.People would probably feel more comfortable shopping again if they knew everyone would be wearing a mask.Do you really think that many people are going to drive to Athens or Hartselle to shop?

Chuck Johns

I will certainly spend my money elsewhere.

Chuck Johns

And how long will the ordinance be in effect ? One year ? Two years ? Until the next flu season comes along ??? Masks should be a personal choice. Government's role is not to be a "mother", demanding their children to obey. Pass this ordinance and watch people go to nearby cities that don't require such third world accessories to make their purchases. If you're that concerned about public health, issue a stay-at-home order and close all businesses. But your concern for my health won't extend to cutting your own revenue, will it ? I believe a $500 fine is more than a bit ludicrous, bordering on asinine. Keep in mind, you do not rule Decatur, you're just elected officials in a back-water village.

Fed Up

Well I'm glad Dr. Bibbee, Dr. Jackson, and Dr. Kirby know so much about what's best for my health because they darn sure dont know what's best for my business. Thanks for potentially running more of my customers out of the city of Decatur.

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