Harvey County issues mask order

Chad Frey
The Harvey County Commission on Tuesday morning issued an order to require individuals to wear a face mask over their nose and mouth in any indoor or outdoor public space where social distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained at all times.

Faced with a nearly 80% increase in Harvey County COVID-19 cases in a week, and a new community spread designation placed on the county, president and CEO of Newton Medical Center Vallerie Gleason visited Tuesday morning with the Harvey County Commission.

She gave a history of the disease, testing for the disease, research into vaccine and cures. She talked about vulnerable populations. She also implored the commission to revisit a discussion the group had a week ago about whether to require face masks in public.

“I am pleading with our community to practice hand hygiene, stay home, do not have close contact with others and to wear a face mask in public,“ Gleason said. ”... I am urging our county leadership to enact a face mask ordinance until a widespread vaccine is achieved.“

Her comments were mirrored by Dr. Jennifer Koontz, president of the Harvey County Historical Society. She supplied a letter to the commission, signed by 44 doctors.

“It is not that we are scared for ourselves or want to create panic. We just care deeply about this,” Koontz said. “... We see masks as a cheap and effective intervention.”

Less than an hour before Gleason and Koontz spoke, the Harvey County Health Department announced a third death of a county resident — and a 79% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in less than a week’s time.

Cases diagnosed have risen steadily, and the health department issued a designation of community spread on July 10.

“That sharply increases the need of mask wearing in public,” said Dr. Robin Hartvickson of Axtell Clinic. “ ... If we wait until symptoms develop to wear a mask, we have undoubtedly spread the disease to others.”

Their words, along with new statistics for infections in Harvey County, swayed the commission.

“When we rescinded the governor’s order a week ago, we had 42 cases ... I made the comment at the time if things changed we would need to revisit this. Boy, have things changed. It went from 43 to 95 this morning,“ Hague said. ”I think it is time to do a mask order.“

The commission voted on a motion to enact a local health order that orders the use of face masks. The order, effective at 12:01 a.m. July 15, does not contain penalties or enforcement tactics.

“Community education is what we will be doing,” Redington said.

The order requires 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 order 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.

Before issuing the order, the commission heard from Sara Dyck, manager of the Et Cetera Shop downtown. The thrift store began requiring masks of all workers on May 4, and for customers when the store opened to the public shortly after.

In the nine weeks since, there have been some “minor” problems with people who have refused to wear masks — however, she said, law enforcement has not been involved in any enforcement efforts or actions at the store.

“We have not needed law enforcement. We have needed community cooperation and supply of masks,“ Dyck said. ”I believe there is an ample supply of both cooperation and supply in our community.“

The order does contain exemptions to mask usage, including for those 5 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.

As the commission began to consider motions, Hague made a statement — and he was in tears for much of it.

“Three things I don’t want to happen in Harvey County. I don’t want schools to not start. I don’t want businesses to shut down. I don’t want a stay-at-home order,” Hague said. “... This should not be about you and me. This is about us, and we. We can beat this together. I cannot believe the hate mail I have gotten on computer from the community. Let’s just do this together.”

In other business, the commission:

• Learned that ICM is taking apart an experimental gasifier at the transfer station and is leaving the site.

• Discussed early voting.

• Discussed an upcoming tax sale. Eleven properties remain on the sale list, for a total of $67,000 in uncollected property tax.

• Approved the hiring of temporary staff as case investigators and contract tracers for the Health Department using grant funds.

• Approved a hangar lease agreement with Tri-Rotor Crop Services and Weibe Ag at the Newton City/County Airport.

• Approved an agreement for third-party assistance for administration of CARES Act Funds.

• Voted 2-1, with Hague against, to set the county not-to-exceed budget at $13,725,477 for 2021, a $90,000 increase over the 2020 budget. The projected mill levy increase is about a quarter of a mill and an approximate total of 43.944 mills. The budget will be finalized Aug. 11.