Council OKs ordinance supporting mask policies

Thursday, April 15, 2021
File photo

The Eureka Springs City Council on Monday night approved a much-debated ordinance regarding the use of face masks in the city.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted the statewide mask mandate two weeks ago, saying that many entities, including businesses, government offices and schools, would make their own decisions about requiring masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Mayor Butch Berry said on Monday night that the number of those infected with the virus is going down locally but other regions of the country are seeing a surge in cases.

“I think that’s because people are taking this real lightly and we’re not doing what’s supposed to be done and should be done,” Berry said. “A lot of people, for whatever reason, are not getting their vaccinations and so I think this is important, at least on a temporary basis, that we continue having some sort of regulation supporting ... wearing masks in our city.”

Council member Terry McClung asked if the ordinance has any teeth and Berry said it doesn’t. Berry said the ordinance is similar to an ordinance passed in the city of Rogers.

“They have no teeth in it also over there,” Berry said. “The problem is it’s still up to the individual shop owners. When you go into their shop, if the shop owner does not want you in there without wearing a mask, then it does have teeth.”

“I think the way the state is now, the shopkeeper has that option anyway,” McClung said.

“This gives them a little more enforcement ... on that,” Berry said.

McClung said he wanted to leave it up to the shopkeepers to enforce their own policies and council member Harry Meyer said he spoke with a couple of shopkeepers who mentioned that an ordinance would be helpful.

“Even though maybe it doesn’t have any teeth, it kind of backs them up when they have the mask sign on the door,” Meyer said.

Council member Melissa Greene said she agreed with the ordinance but said she’s heard from shopkeepers who don’t want it. Greene asked if the shopkeepers would face a penalty if they didn’t enforce mask wearing and Berry said no. Greene then asked if police officers are available downtown to remove people from businesses at a shopkeeper’s request.

“We’ve finally gotten our police department back up to full strength and we have policemen downtown now,” Berry said.

“Good, because … what they’ve said to me is they want masks in their shops and they’ve had people who have just come in and been horrible — nasty — and if someone gets really nasty, I like that we have the police force back and there’s someone that can help them,” Greene said.

Council member Laura Jo Smole said the ordinance needed a sunset date so “it isn’t just hanging out there until we write an ordinance taking it off the books.” Greene asked Berry when the moratorium on public events will end, and Berry said it’s slated for June 30. Greene suggested establishing the sunset date on that day.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Berry said.

“I believe our enforcement of the mask and no events … I think that’s kept us pretty virus-free and it’s kept our business booming,” Greene said.

“There is no enforcement of the mask,” McClung said. “There is none. Don’t use that phrase.”

Meyer said there “hasn’t really been enforcement of the mask” even during Hutchinson’s mask mandate.

“I think we ought to go ahead and pass this and maybe have it sunset with the events and see what happens,” Meyer said.

Council member Autumn Slane said she supported the ordinance.

“I like the expiration date,” Slane said.

Smole said she wasn’t sure about approving an ordinance that had no means of enforcement.

“This is like we’re going to make an ordinance about a suggestion and I find that troublesome,” Smole said.

Berry said the ordinance is similar to ordinances passed in other cities and has been recommended by the Arkansas Municipal League. There is no mask ordinance in the state that includes enforcement, Berry said.

“I’m not even sure if we had an enforcement if we could enforce it or not,” Berry said.

McClung suggested passing a resolution instead of an ordinance and city attorney Tim Weaver said an ordinance would be better in case of a lawsuit.

“You are asking police officers to escort people off if they aren’t wearing a mask,” Weaver said. “They could be involved in the potential of a lawsuit and I think an ordinance would support them better than a resolution.”

Greene moved to approve the ordinance on a first reading and the council agreed to do so, with Greene, Slane and Meyer voting yes and McClung and Smole voting no. Berry voted yes, making the vote 4-2. The council then voted 4-2 to approve an amendment creating a sunset date of June 30, 2021. Again, Berry was the fourth vote.

The council continued, voting to approve the ordinance on second and third readings by title only. The council also approved the emergency clause, putting the ordinance in full effect immediately.

The council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, April 26, at The Auditorium.

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