Mount Vernon City Hall

Mount Vernon City Hall.

MOUNT VERNON – As COVID-19 cases and deaths surge across the country, governors in 25 states have ordered mask mandates to prevent the spread of the novel virus. Ohio is not one of those states.

Gov. Mike DeWine has instead gone with a targeted approach, only mandating masks for counties that have reached “Level 3” in the state’s Public Health Advisory Alert System. Counties in this category are considered to have “very high exposure and spread,” based on a number of factors, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Residents in these counties are encouraged to “limit activities as much as possible.”

So far, 12 counties have been classified as “Level 3,” and thus have been issued mask mandates by DeWine. Another 35 counties, including six of Knox County’s seven direct neighbors (all but Ashland County), are classified as “Level 2.” Knox County remains “Level 1,” with 57 confirmed cases (38 presumed recovered), 10 hospitalizations and one death as of Monday.

Because DeWine has not mandated masks statewide, municipalities not considered “Level 3” have had to decide for themselves whether or not to enforce mask usage in public.

Yellow Springs, a village near Dayton, became the first municipality in Ohio to issue a mask mandate on June 15 (DeWine's order took effect July 8). Its council members passed a resolution that requires physical distancing, face covering and hand sanitizing within the village’s Central Business District. The resolution is set to expire Dec. 30, or as soon as the Ohio Department of Health lifts the state of emergency.

Since then, several other municipalities in Ohio have followed Yellow Springs’ lead, adopting their own variations of the resolution. According to the Columbus Dispatch, as of July 6, 11 municipalities had issued some form of mask mandate. Punitive measures to encourage compliance have varied from community to community; while Yellow Springs did not attach a fine to its resolution, residents who violate Upper Arlington’s policy are subject to a fine of up to $150 (it is classified as a minor misdemeanor).

The state’s mask mandate for “Level 3” counties applies to any indoor location other than a residence, as well as people who are outdoors and unable to consistently maintain six-foot social distancing. It also applies to people who are waiting for and using public transportation.

Those who are 10 years old or younger are exempt from the state order, as well as those with physical or developmental disabilities. State and local officials are charged with enforcing the mandates, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said, not individual businesses. Violating the state’s order constitutes a misdemeanor.

Medical experts and public health officials agree that mask usage is critical in fighting the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 3,064 Ohioans and 135,187 Americans as of Monday.

A recent study concluded that if 80 percent of a closed population were to wear a mask in public, COVID-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one-twelfth of what infection numbers would have been if no one in that population wore masks. DeWine has reiterated this figure in recent press conferences.

"If we could get 75 to 80 percent of people who are actually out in public, who are interacting with other people to wear a mask, we will beat this thing down," DeWine said Thursday. "It will make a fundamental difference. It will change the fall. It will change the winter."

Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller has echoed this support for mask usage, and has expressed concern recently that not enough residents are doing so. While Miller said she does not have the authority to issue a mask mandate for Knox County, or for any particular municipality, she “would guide the local mayors and county commissioners if they asked for her input.”

“Knox Public Health strongly supports the wearing of masks – not just for employees, but for the general public,” KPH spokeswoman Pam Palm said. “We receive more complaints about people not wearing masks than any other prevention effort.

“When you wear a mask, you protect the people around you. When the people around you wear a mask, they help protect you. So, it's important that as many people as possible wear a mask. Testing has consistently shown that wearing a mask significantly reduces the transmission of COVID-19 – most cloth masks reduce the transmission of germs by 60 percent – which is not perfect, but certainly better than not wearing a mask."

Mount Vernon’s city council has not yet discussed the possibility of a mask mandate for its residents, and the topic is not on the agenda for Monday night’s meeting. However, in the absence of any state order, it would have the authority to implement one at the local level.

Knox Pages reached out to each city council member to ask if they would support a mask mandate for city residents, and to explain their decision. The website also contacted Mayor Matt Starr and Council President Bruce Hawkins for this story.

Of the four council members who responded, one said they would vote for a mask mandate, one said they would not, and two shared their thoughts but did not take a definitive stance on the issue. Starr said he has “no intention of imposing a mandatory mask policy for the general public,” while Hawkins said he would support a mask mandate for public places that are indoors.

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The issue is complicated, city officials noted. While widespread mask usage would likely prevent the spread of the virus in Mount Vernon – potentially saving lives while protecting the community's most vulnerable – enforcing such a mandate could be challenging. Access to masks could also be an issue for some residents, although experts say homemade masks (even old t-shirts or bandanas) are as good as any.

Here is how each city official responded, when asked if they would support the adoption of a citywide mask mandate:

Mayor Matt Starr: “City employees are wearing face masks in order to conduct business just as other businesses under the current Ohio Department of Health order. I believe that the new risk level guidelines outlined by the Governor's office and the Department of Health will be helpful to citizens understanding the risk they take if they choose to not wear one. I have no intention of imposing a mandatory mask policy for the general public, but I would enforce a mandatory policy if it were so ordered from the Governor and/or ODH.”

Council President Bruce Hawkins: “I am very concerned about the increase in the virus. I would support requiring mask in public places indoors. I know it may not be a popular decision, but it is better than having to shut down retail establishments and restaurants again.

"As an educator for 47 years, I am also concerned about getting students back in the buildings. We need to do what we can to curb the spread of the virus. I am concerned about the lack of masks in our retail establishments. Voluntary action does not seem to be working. Some cities have made it a requirement, but have no teeth in enforcement. Without some type of enforcement, the rule will likely have little impact.”

Councilwoman Samantha Scoles (First Ward): “Honestly, this is a tough question that ultimately has a two-sides answer. We all want to keep ourselves, family, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens healthy and safe. But, If we dictate such a mandate, who’s going to enforce that? Knox Public Health, as well as our police department, are already stretched thin. Let’s not forget we are expecting nearly $1.5 million loss in income tax revenue this year which funds our police. We cannot financially afford to increase hours to police mask wearing.

“Would it be great if everyone wore a mask? Yes, it would. We’ve been fortunate here in Knox County to have such low numbers and I’d like it to stay that way. Mandated or not, there will be those who choose not to wear one. Some of those people have conditions that would prohibit their use of masks, others want to express their American freedoms, and still others don’t see the seriousness of the virus.

“If the city moves forward with something, it could be more of a public service to encourage citizens and visitors to wear masks and remain socially distanced, we could also connect more business owners with resources to create their own health and safety practices that increase mask-wearing. Above all, we all need to be responsible citizens with an open heart to the health and well-being of all those around us.”

Councilman Mike Hillier (Fourth Ward): “I think we need to listen closely to our Knox County Health Commissioner. I believe she listens to what the ODH says. Keep in mind a mandate is one thing, being able to enforce it is another.”

Councilman Tanner Salyers (At-Large): “I am not in favor of a mandate. For me it's an issue of access and enforcement.

“Access: As a high school teacher, I will be most likely required to wear a mask all day every day in the fall when we return (assuming that'll be the plan) and I have purchased a box of 10 for about $20 because I have been led to believe supplies will be limited. I imagine with the increase of mandates around the country, you'll see more and more strain put on the supply chain and prices will rise and supplies will be limited. I do not want to put our citizens, especially those who are still financially recuperating from the COVID-19 shutdowns, in a FORCED position to go out and find a supply of masks for themselves and their families.

“Enforcement: The biggest issue communities that have adopted these mandates are already facing is one of enforcement. I'm not going to burden the MVPD and the courts with policing and adjudicating any sort of violation. Is it a misdemeanor? What degree? What's the justification? What's the penalty or fine? Why? I'm just not interested in punitive actions when there are other ways to encourage physical distancing and mask-wearing.

“My suggestions: I would like to see more businesses, facilities, organizations, and so on encourage or require masks for entry. I would like to see philanthropic and service organizations purchase or make masks and distribute masks free of charge or at cost. I would like to see our city leaders wear masks as examples (I've been guilty of this and I'm committing to do better). I'd like to see us as a community commit to a positive messaging campaign (‘Who are you wearing a mask for?’ I'm wearing one for my pregnant wife and unborn daughter because we don't know the long term effects of COVID-19 on a pregnancy.), as opposed to ‘mask-shaming’ and punitive actions. We need more carrots and less sticks.

“Ultimately, we need everyone on the same page with our messaging: masks are safe, they are effective, they are not a sign of fear but a sign of a community coming together to beat this thing. Knox County, and Mount Vernon in particular, has very few cases and a mandate is, in my view, not necessary at this point. I feel as though we can organically normalize mask-wearing without a government mandate. That will be more successful in the long term.”

Councilwoman Julia Warga (At-Large): “Yes. COVID-19 is quickly spreading in Knox County. Wearing masks limits the spread. To safely reopen schools and continue reopening businesses, we must contain COVID-19 from spreading further in our community.”

Councilman John Francis (Second Ward), Councilwoman Tammy Woods (Third Ward), and Councilwoman Janis Seavolt (At-Large) did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.