Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler

Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler speaks during Monday night's village council special meeting to consider an indoor mask mandate for the village.

GAMBIER -- Gambier Village Council voted 4-1 Monday night to pass an emergency ordinance mandating mask-wearing indoors at public places within the village, effective immediately.

Village officials cited the recent surge in coronavirus cases, Knox County's 37% vaccination rate, students returning to school in the coming days, and other factors in the decision to introduce the ordinance.

“This ordinance is for the village as a whole, which includes Kenyon College, which includes the businesses (within village limits), and it includes (Wiggin Street Elementary School). And the concerns that have been brought forward to us are about the village as a whole, including the elementary school," Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler said during Monday's meeting.

"The timing of this is based on the fact that when the Mount Vernon City School (District) said that they were not going to be mandating mask-wearing, community members asked, ‘Is there something the village can do?’ We looked into it, and this is what the village can do. The village can put in-place its own village-wide mask mandate that covers everyone, not just the elementary — it covers the bank, it covers Kenyon College, it covers everyone.

"This is one way that our community has looked to to be in compliance with what Knox Public Health is asking us to do, what the CDC and Ohio Department of Health is asking, what the governor is asking. Indoor masking has been recognized as the best way to slow the spread of this particular virus and its variants that we’re seeing right now. This is the tool the village has in-place."

Council held a two-hour public meeting Monday night before the vote was taken. More than 10 residents spoke, some opposing the mandate and some in-favor.

Council voted unanimously to suspend the three readings, making it an emergency ordinance. It then voted 4-1 to pass the ordinance, meeting the two-thirds requirement, with council members Liz Forman, Alison Furlong, Betsy Heer and Kaitlin Sockman for the mandate and Morgan Giles against it.

The ordinance will take effect immediately and is set to expire Oct. 4. This is when village council will hold its October meeting.

“I thought, as the person putting this down in writing, that a shorter window made sense for re-evaluation," village solicitor Clinton Bailey said during the meeting. "If things are good Oct. 4 (and) you enact this tonight, as proposed, then it may not be needed then.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed COVID-19 transmission in Knox County "high" at the moment, as the county has seen a 38% increase in cases and a 142% increase in COVID-related hospitalizations over the last week.

Nearly 20 percent of county residents being tested for COVID-19 over the last seven days were positive, and testing volume has risen 15 percent during that time. There are currently 144 active confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Knox County, Knox Public Health reported Monday, with 19 residents hospitalized.

Four Knox County residents have died from the virus over the last five days, after nearly three months without a COVID-related fatality. The county has seen 122 virus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, 37% of Knox County is at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Ohio Department of Health. This lags behind the state average of 50% and the national average of 60%, according to the CDC.

The county's least-vaccinated age group is those age 0-19, where less than 10 percent of residents have received the jab. Children under the age of 12 are currently ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The CDC recommended July 21 that people wear masks indoors in public settings, regardless of vaccination status, in areas of "high" or "substantial" transmission. It also recommended school districts enforce universal masking, given the low vaccination rates among school-age children.

The American Association of Pediatrics, Ohio Department of Health and Knox Public Health endorsed this recommendation. But Mount Vernon City Schools, along with Knox County's five other K-12 districts, chose to make masks optional to begin the 2021-22 school year.

When the district announced its decision to do so Aug. 9, Kessler said residents approached him with concerns. Kenyon College had already announced its own indoor mask mandate Aug. 6, which would apply to all Kenyon-owned buildings (with exceptions for places of residence).

Kessler said he discussed the idea of a village mask mandate with Wiggin Street Elementary Principal Christy Grandstaff, Kenyon College Vice President for Facilities, Planning and Sustainability Ian Smith, and other individuals in the community, including business owners, library leadership, and management at the Gambier Child Care Center.

Bailey drafted the ordinance, and the village placed a special council meeting on its schedule Friday, Kessler said. Notices were sent to Mount Vernon City Schools and local media outlets that day, and the village's online calendar was updated. The village made a Facebook post publicizing the meeting at noon on Monday. 

Residents opposing the mandate pressed Kessler Monday on the timing of the meeting. School begins Thursday for Mount Vernon students, and some of the Wiggin Street parents in attendance felt three days was not enough time to determine an alternative learning option for their child, if a mask mandate was passed.

“We would transfer our kids to Twin Oak or within the school system (if a mask mandate were enforced) and I asked the school board about that today, and open enrollment is closed," Gambier resident Timothy Clutter said.

"It’s just, why do this now? Why, three days before school starts? I mean, our kids are extremely upset. And I respect your right to wear a mask, that’s fine. I’m not all saying don’t do it or do it. But don’t make my kid do it. If they don’t want to do it and we’re responsible for their health, why push that on them?”

Kessler said the village had limited options when deciding when to hold this meeting, as council typically meets once a month (on the first Monday) and Mount Vernon City Schools did not make its back-to-school announcement until Aug. 9.

“Our options for this meeting were to wait until our September meeting, after the school would have already opened, or to try to push it closer to when they’re opening on Wednesday, or to hold it at our regular time, Monday evening, with days for adjustment, so it’s not one day or after the opening has taken place," Kessler said.

Kenyon College students will return to campus Aug. 21, Kessler added, and there will be twice as many students on-campus this year as there were last year, when half of the student population lived on campus at all times to ensure social distancing.

"Our whole purpose of trying to do the emergency (ordinance) is to make sure by the time students at Kenyon have returned and students at Wiggin Street have returned, and the village is larger and more populous than it ever (will) have been, (the ordinance is in-place) ..." Kessler said.

"One of the issues we’re looking at is the fact that Kenyon is looking at a much larger student body, so we’re gonna have a much more active village this fall. So if we’re going to do this, now is the time.”

Gambier is not the first Ohio municipality to issue an indoor mask mandate in recent weeks. The Village of Yellow Springs, near Dayton, passed a resolution Aug. 9 declaring a "COVID State of Emergency" in the village, and mandating mask-wearing in all indoor public areas.

The village's decision came three days after public health officials in Columbus told members of the media they could issue little more than a "mask advisory" due to Senate Bill 22, which was passed in March by the Ohio General Assembly.

The new law prohibits local health departments from enforcing issuing blanket health mandates among people not diagnosed with any disease. Legislative bodies, however, still have the authority to issue such a mandate.

Gambier is currently the only municipality in Knox County with an indoor mask mandate.

“We are doing what we can as a community," Kessler said. "We have a mandate, and we will restore our oaths to protect this community. One of the things that municipalities have charge over is public health, particularly of contagious infectious disease … We all share the same air, we all come together and are in the same ecosystem.”

How Gambier's new ordinance will work

The stated purpose of Gambier's mask mandate, according to the ordinance, is to "(promote) health, safety, and efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 necessary to protect public health and safety, and is needed for the continuity of social and commercial life while enabling the continuation of essential services, businesses, and travel within the (village)."

According to the ordinance, residents and visitors will be required to wear a mask at "places of public accommodation and public settings," which includes "all places offering goods or services for purchase or rent ... (and) any public place which is not a place of public accommodation, but where persons congregate."

The list of specific indoor settings mentioned in the ordinance includes:

  • Retail businesses
  • Personal services
  • Entertainment venues
  • Performance venues
  • Food service facilities
  • Restaurants and bars
  • Hotels and inns
  • Professional offices and services
  • Banks and financial services
  • Repair facilities
  • Offices
  • Workplaces
  • Child care facilities
  • Health facilities
  • Gymnasiums and fitness facilities
  • Sports facilities
  • Indoor communal spaces
  • Any building or facility used for academics

The following individuals will be exempt from the mandate:

  • Persons under the age of 5
  • Persons while within religious facilities
  • Persons while actively eating or drinking, including but not limited to while within restaurants or bars
  • Persons in private offices or non-public work areas
  • Persons in student residential areas (dorm room, apartment, campus house, etc.)
  • Persons who, because of a medical or behavioral condition or disability, cannot wear a facial covering without risk to their health or safety
  • Persons who, given the nature of their work, cannot wear a facial covering without risk to their health or safety or the health or safety of others
  • Persons communicating with a person who is hearing-impaired in a way that requires the mouth to be visible
  • Persons actively participating in a competitive sporting activity or while exercising
  • Persons in private guest rooms in hotels or inns

Those found in violation of the mandate will be assessed a $25 fine, the ordinance reads. The Knox County Sheriff's Office is listed as the enforcing body.

While other municipalities have attached a criminal offense to similar legislation, Bailey said Gambier intentionally chose a different route.

"I look at this as more of a ‘cooperation’ ordinance, rather than punitive," he said.

Village leadership emphasized that Gambier's ordinance is mandating what the CDC, Ohio Department of Health and Knox Public Health have recommended in recent weeks, as COVID-19 cases surge and hospitals in other regions of the country begin to reach capacity.

“This is predicated on the recommendations of the CDC, the Ohio Department of Health and (Knox Public Health), which most involve indoor settings," Kessler said.

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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.