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.