The Decatur City Council on Wednesday passed a mask ordinance to control the spread of COVID-19, but the mayor said he will wait a full 10 days before deciding whether to sign or veto it.
The vote on the ordinance, which would carry a $1 to $500 fine for a violation, came after a series of meetings that had some residents protesting because they said it violated their liberties and others pushing for it because they said it would saves lives.
“I have 10 days, and I will take advantage of those 10 days,” Bowling said after the meeting. He has previously opposed the ordinance, and it would not take effect until he signs it or 10 days elapses.
“That is the perfect snapshot of what we have as a mayor,” Councilman Billy Jackson said. “While he’s weighing things out and making this political, people will get sick and people will die.”
Bowling said he’s going to take time to listen to residents because people are divided over the issue.
“The governor may do something. We have health professionals I need to consult. A lot of things can happen,” Bowling said.
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 the mask ordinance this week.
The vote came as Decatur Morgan Hospital reported it had 24 confirmed COVID-19 patients, and another 29 patients awaiting COVID-19 test results.
Bowling said the votes by Jackson, Council President Paige Bibbee and Councilman Charles Kirby in favor of the ordinance “represent the majority of the people in this city,” and that could influence his decision.
However, Bowling said he’s concerned about the ordinance’s potential impact on the city’s businesses, especially since Athens, Hartselle and Priceville have not mandated face masks.
The mayor’s plan to take the full 10 days angered Jackson, who introduced and pushed for the ordinance. He urged Bowling to sign or veto the ordinance immediately instead of waiting.
It would take a two-thirds vote for the council to overturn a veto.
Jackson said this isn’t a meaningless resolution. He said it’s an important ordinance that he would vote for even if 90% of his District 1 residents were against it “because this could save lives.” He added that he didn’t receive any input from his constituents opposing the ordinance.
'Throwing a tantrum'
Kirby said he doesn’t understand why Bowling needs more input from health professionals “because they’re all behind mandatory masks. He’s intent on throwing a tantrum, and that’s going to cost lives.”
Kirby said requiring masks “is a a matter of health and not a matter of wealth. It’s about saving lives. It’s not about being popular.”
Paul Serwatka, an opponent against Bowling in the upcoming mayoral election, said he agrees with Bowling’s previously expressed stance against mandatory masks and he hopes the ordinance will be vetoed.
“This is a chance for him to show leadership,” Serwatka said.
The City Council was split over the issue in what was a confusing called meeting.
City Attorney Herman Marks and the council agreed they could vote in Wednesday’s called meeting because the ordinance was introduced Monday. The council voted 3-2 to pass the ordinance with council members Kristi Hill and Chuck Ard voting against it.
However, Marks changed his mind as the council headed to an executive session on a separate legal matter and he asked them to reconvene. By then, members of the public had left City Hall.
Marks said he remembered the council discussed the ordinance in a work session Monday so they needed unanimous consent from all members to vote on it Wednesday or they would have to have another meeting.
Ard, who participated initially over teleconference, did not call back in when they reconvened, but he had said he was OK with unanimous consent.
The second vote on the mandatory mask ordinance passed 3-1, with Hill voting no and Bibbee, Jackson and Kirby voting for the ordinance again.
Police Chief Nate Allen told the council he attended a meeting of the Morgan County Task Force on Wednesday and that task force “is behind your mandatory face mask ordinance.” He added that the group is concerned that local hospitals’ intensive care units are approaching capacity because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Allen said they are also concerned that the number of people ages 21 to 30 getting infected continues to rise.
Bibbee said the task force’s stance and the support of the Decatur-Morgan Hospital Board and the city’s medical director are why she voted for the ordinance.
“We are at a critical point with our hospitals, and that’s a problem,” Bibbee said.
Hill said she is also concerned about the impact of the ordinance on local businesses.
“I’m a mask wearer but that is a choice,” Hill said. “A majority of the people I heard from were not in favor of mandated masks. People would rather the businesses decide on that measure.
“I believe COVID-19 is real; people have survived and people have died. If wearing a mask is a health-safety measure and there are hard facts that it prevents COVID-19 by wearing a mask, then federal and state health organizations would mandate it.”
Allen said it’s not up to businesses to enforce the ordinance. He said he hopes businesses will put up signs on their front doors that warn people that masks are required by city ordinance and then act as they would under the smoking ordinance by calling the police if a customer won’t comply.
He said an officer will then respond. They will first educate potential violators “because some people won’t know there’s an ordinance,” warn them and then issue a citation, if they still haven’t complied. He urged people not to call Morgan County 911 if they see a violator because that would overload the Police Department.
Bibbee pointed out the council removed from the draft ordinance any jail time for noncompliance, but Allen said a violator can still be arrested for trespassing if he or she refuses to leave a business, or disorderly conduct if an officer’s order is refused.
“We don’t want to risk an officer possibly getting hurt when he or she has to make an arrest, so we would like cooperation from our citizens,” Allen said.
Municipal Judge Billy Cook would decide the amount of the fine, provided it is $500 or less, for anyone receiving a citation. Court costs would be waived on the initial citation.
The ordinance includes some exceptions, but when and if it takes effect it will generally requires face coverings inside businesses and venues open to the general public, in city government buildings, and in bars and restaurants except while eating or drinking. Face coverings are also required while people are using public transit, taxis and ride-sharing services.
Face coverings are only required in outdoor areas where 10 or more people are gathered and they are not able to maintain a 6-foot distance between people of different households.
Children age 2 and under are not required to wear a face covering, and parents have discretion for children 8 and under. Face coverings can be removed when necessary during medical procedures and hair care services. The coverings also are not required if masks create a health or safety risk.
The ordinance does not apply to places of worship, indoor athletic facilities or voting centers. It does not apply to private clubs and gatherings where a 6-foot distance is maintained between people of different households.
The ordinance does not exclude schools, although during debate some council members said it was their understanding the ordinance would not impact schools. The ordinance does include an exception "for people speaking to a large group of people ... provided the speaker can stay at least 6 feet away from other persons."
The ordinance will go into effect "at 5 p.m. on the day after its publication," and will remain in effect until state and local health officials advise that a change or discontinuation of the ordinance is warranted. "However," according to the ordinance, "the council will review and seek guidance whether this ordinance requires amendment at least every 30 days."