City to suggest, not require, mask usage

Chad Frey
Pam Stevens, director of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce, addresses the Newton City Commission about a proposed mask policy.

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After hearing public comment on both sides of the issue, the city commission chose to pass a resolution recommending the use of face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The action taken — a resolution encouraging mask use rewritten to exempt schools and churches — will be voted on next week. A resolution does not carry with it enforcement methods or fines.

“We cannot afford to shut down again. We can’t do that for a variety of reasons, whether it is economic health, mental health, spiritual health. We have to find a way to open schools in the fall, in person,” said Leroy Koehn, current mayor for the city of Newton. “One thing I am against that we put one more thing on our police and we expect them to be a mask police. ... I am for a resolution to formally encourage everyone to wear a mask. I think that is prudent.”

The resolution, one of three options discussed by the city commission Tuesday at a special meeting at the Meridian Center, only encourages residents to wear facial coverings.

The commission heard public comments on both sides of the issue. Some spoke against criminalization of not wearing a mask, the erosion of personal rights and violation of privacy.

“I back a resolution. I do not think fines are necessary or not good for our community. ... I suffer from anxiety, and when I put my mask on myself, I feel it amping up,” said Eric Mosher, a Newton resident. “... If you force people to put on a mask, you are forcing people to explain why they cannot wear a mask to people who have no right to that information. ... You are wrong if you say my right to privacy is not infringed.”

The commission was urged to consider a resolution, or an ordinance with fines, by health care professionals and business leaders from the community.

“As your community hospital’s CEO, I am urging our community to practice rigorous hand hygiene, avoid close contact with others, stay home if you are sick and wear a face mask in public,” said Val Gleason, president and CEO of Newton Medical Center.

“(Businesses) are looking for your leadership,” said Pam Stevens, director of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce. “... Our business community is very scared, they cannot afford another shutdown. If you can mandate a mask, that would take the pressure off of them to do it. ... Several of our businesses have had issues. It is expensive to do the sanitation, the closures and the layoffs. ... For a short period of time, to be inconvenienced to keep our community safe, it is the right thing to do.”

On July 2, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order requiring the use of masks. The county opted out of the order, making it not applicable to Harvey County or the city of Newton.

“Now the issue comes to the city, because under home rule authority, the city has an option,” said city attorney Chris Towle.

The commission was presented with the resolution it ultimately passed, an ordinance that contained penalty and fines and the opportunity to do nothing at all.

A motion to table the issue and do nothing died for lack of a second. A motion to adopt an ordinance with a fine structure suffered the same fate.

The ordinance, which the city commission chose not to vote on and would have expired Aug. 15, was based largely on governor order and contained punishment by fine — $25 for first conviction, $50 for a second and $100 on third and subsequent convictions. Due process of citations would have been performed by municipal court. Court costs on citations are currently about $80.

Similar ordinances were recently passed in Wichita, Winfield and Salina.

The commission voted to make amendments to the presented resolution, exempting schools and churches, and bring it back to the commission next week.

“I am for passing a resolution ... that we would exempt all of the schools. They need to have their own rules. It is not up to us. The same with churches,“ Koehn said.

The resolution suggests the use a mask covering the nose and mouth in any indoor public space where distance of 6 feet is not possible, in line and waiting to enter an indoor public space, when obtaining health care services, waiting for or riding on public transportation including taxis and outdoors in places where maintaining social distancing is not possible.

The resolution suggests businesses require employees to wear a mask in any space visited by customers or members of the public; any space where food is prepared or packaged for sale or distribution; where customers, members, visitors or members of the public are in a facility managed by the business; or employees are in any room or enclosed area where social distancing is not possible or infrequent.

The resolution does contain exemptions to mask usage, including those five years old or younger; persons with a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering; persons who are hearing impaired or communication with a person who is hearing impaired where the ability to see the mouth is essential; persons who would be placed at risk due to work as defined by local, state or federal regulations; when receiving services requires the removal of the masks; those eating in a restaurant if social distancing can be observed between groups; and athletes engaged in an organized sports activity that allows athletes to social distance.