Hillsboro discusses mask mandate

After the Marion County Board of Commissioners failed to issue a mask mandate on Monday, Nov. 16, the Hillsboro City Council decided to take matters into their own hands and pass their own ordinance.

Mayor Lou Thurston summed it up.

“I think this is a public health issue and not some government control issue,” he said. “I’m quite uninterested in trying to control what people do. I am concerned about the oath of office that I took that says that I am responsible for the health, safety and general welfare of this community. I take that pretty seriously, and that has weighed pretty heavily on my mind. I will also say that I have actually had a crisis of conscience lately as I have kept this issue from coming up as an ordinance because I felt like I would be the one to have to break a tie vote. I can’t live with that. I can’t sit back and take no action when I firmly believe this is one thing that we can do.

“When we have the public health officers in our county begging us to do something, we have to listen. I don’t have an M.D.; I don’t have a Ph.D. And I recognize that I can’t believe everything I read on the Internet and social media,” Thurston said. “What I can do is listen to and evaluate what we get from trained and educated professionals that we have put in positions of authority in health. We need to step up and do something. An ordinance with no teeth is useless.”

The meeting, held on Zoom and attended by over 50 people including the council, started off with public comments. These were limited to two minutes.

“Do the responsible thing and wear masks when you are in places where you can’t social distance. The whole goal is to slow the spread. We are not going to stop the spread, but hopefully we can slow the spread. I think that becoming overwhelmed in the hospitals with just COVID on top of all your other emergencies, I think you have to take that into consideration. We want to keep businesses open; we want to keep the schools open. Because people are social creatures, we don’t want to see any more lockdowns. We want people to keep going, and wearing a mask is the simplest, easiest thing to do, just like wearing our seatbelts,” Diedre Serene, the county health administrator, said.

Mark Rooker, CEO of the Hillsboro Community Hospital also spoke.

“There is a difference between living in a place and being part of a community,” he said. “If you are part of a community, you take responsibility. We can all get through this together. There is a lot of health care that is getting hit right now, and we need to consider what we can do to assist in lowering and flattening that curve so we don’t get overwhelmed.”

There were also some citizens who did not support a mask mandate. None were medical professionals.

Bill Rudd, local pastor, asked for the mandate to be rejected, mentioning heading down the road to “Draconian Law” and other theories.

Thurston quickly and firmly assured Rudd that the city is not going down any such road.

After a few minutes of no comments, City Administrator Matt Stiles and Thurston asked for any more comments.

“It’s important that if you have something you want to bring before the council, we are not in a hurry to get to the rest of the agenda. If you are here and want to be heard, we want to hear from you,” Thurston said. “I urge you strongly. Don’t be afraid to stand up and voice your opinion.”

Once public comments were closed, the council discussed a few housekeeping items and then moved on to the mandate.

Stiles gave background on the mask mandate, also known as Ordinance 1322.

Stile explained that Ordinance 1322 would require the wearing of a face mask in public. He said it requires employees at businesses and in organizations open to the public to wear face masks. There are exemptions built into the ordinance for those aged 5 and under, those with medical conditions, those with hearing impairments and those whose job or activity would be hazardous if they wore a mask.

He also clarified that face masks would not be required while eating in a restaurant or for athletes engaged in organized sports. Persons in court-related matters would not be required to wear masks.

The ordinance has a built-in escalating penalty attached to violations. The first offense would be a $25 fine, the second offense would be $50, and the third and subsequent offenses would $100.

“Offenses would be run through municipal court and would be subject to court fees, $90.00 per offense. With the court fees, the proposed penalties are $105, $140 and $190, respectively,” Stiles said.

He also explained that, as written, the ordinance would go into effect after publication and end on Jan 26, 2021.

“The 62-day period coincides with the January meeting schedule. If the council wanted an extension of the mandate, they could do so at the Jan. 19, 2021, meeting and publish an extension on Jan. 27, eliminating a gap in the mandate,” Stiles said.

Stiles also explained that the Hillsboro Police Department would be the enforcement organization. The P.D. would prefer to issue warnings and ask for compliance rather than write tickets.

“The intention is not to be punitive but to support public health much like requiring seatbelts and limiting smoking. However, this ordinance would empower the P.D. to write a ticket if needed. Despite how polarizing masks have become, we do not anticipate many calls about those not wearing masks. I spoke with Marion City Hall about the calls they have had regarding those not wearing masks. The response was that they have had ‘very few’ since their mandate was put in place in June,” Stiles said. “To handle complaints, we would ask citizens to call the regular P.D. number rather than 9-1-1. We would also set up an email address that citizens could contact.”

Stiles and Thurston both pointed out that there has been a spike in COVID cases in Marion County, including 31 new cases reported on the Nov. 12 health department press release. The sharp rise has caused USD 410 to move to a hybrid schedule until at least after Thanksgiving and possibly later.

Stiles explained that the ordinance cannot take effect until it is published in the Hillsboro Star-Journal. Once it is published, the ordinance can be enforced immediately.He also said that signs could be provided for businesses, making the public aware of the mandate.

After the explanation, the council members began to discuss the ordinance.

Council Member Renee Gehring immediately made it clear where she stood on the mask mandate, stating that she sees most people wearing masks and did not feel the need to “force masks on constituent.s” Gehring could be seen throughout the meeting shaking her head vehemently and bringing up her disagreement with most of the points of the ordinance.

One clause that caused issues for a few council members in particular was the one that stated the ordinance would apply to employees who work where food is prepared or packaged.

“If it is the food preparation, so I would say that is Barkman [Honey] and Container Services in this case; we have our own rules and regulations that we are under for food safety, and so I guess I am questioning why an ordinance would be in addition and on top of that,” said Council Member Brent Driggers, owner of Container Services.

Driggers and Gehring, who both protested this clause, did not seem to have the same issues for other food preparation places such as restaurants and grocery stores, but only the two mentioned, particularly the business owned by Driggers. IT was also mentioned, that the doors are locked to the public and thus didn’t fall under masking for the public.

City Attorney Josh Boehm and Thurston both initially seemed to support reworking the ordinance to support Drigger’s business and Barkman Hone,y since they are not open to the public. But after further discussion, both admitted that the ordinance is not as much about public access but safety for groups.

“If you want to pass this, we can’t get into exempting specific businesses,” Boehm said. “The ordinance is written not necessarily for public but anytime social distancing isn’t allowed or can happen in a facility.”

“I don’t think business people should have to enforce city laws since they aren’t deputized. The reason I got this started again and talked to Lou is that there was a guy standing in line in one of the quick shops and there was a guy standing in line behind him who didn’t have a mask on. He sneezes on the guy’s back twice. Now, this kind of stuff is ridiculous, and we shouldn’t have to pass a law because people don’t have the common sense to do what is right. It upsets me that people like that do stuff like that,” Byron McCarty said. “I know you can’t fix stupid, but I don’t know any other way to do this. If you have any ideas….”

“In response to Byron [McCarty], I would suggest not having these at all,” Gehring said. “I would suggest just offering someone a mask if it’s deemed safe and appropriate for them. I mean that is our end goal, anyway, correct? That would be my suggestion.”

“Then, as far as I am concerned, we already have that with our proclamation. Because if there is no penalty, there is no need for compliance,” Thurston said.

“I think the mandates are going to have the opposite effect for our community,” Gehring said. “Because people that have already been wearing a mask on their own and would normally wear a mask; I think they are going to not wear a mask, and I know at least one person already that will be doing that. So that is my thought.”

“Well, that’s a sad commentary,” Thurston said.

Driggers asked Gehring what she meant about burdening business owners after she mentioned hardships that owners are already experiencing.

“Well, especially with the fee that is involved,” Gehring said.

“I guess I’m not following you fully,” Driggers said.

Gehring said that she wasn’t sure and would have to look.

After more conversation, Driggers and Gehring expressed concerns about fines for businesses who don’t follow the mask mandates for their employees and the public.

Several times, Gehring made comments about business owners being fined and penalized. Driggers continued to attempt to clarify, asking if she was referring to a certain clause. Gehring continuously said she was unsure and would have to look at it, but she did not end up clarifying what she meant.

“If you walk into a business and employees and the business owners are not wearing a mask, I think that can turn business away as well,” Council Member David Loewen said. “I don’t know how much of that is happening, either, but I have walked into several businesses downtown and no masks by employees or business owners. They might have them hanging around their necks, but they aren’t over their faces.”

“I’ve seen that, too,” McCarty said.

“I’ve had more people tell me they are not going to shop in Hillsboro because we don’t have a mask mandate and we don’t enforce wearing of masks than I have had people tell me that they won’t shop in Hillsboro for having one,” Thurston said.

In the end, the council was unable to agree on the ordinance and tabled it pending further changes. They will meet again at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 24. A recording of the meeting can be found on YouTube.

Also during the meeting, Stiles gave his administrator’s report.

“We started to make changes to adapt to the rising COVID-19 cases in Marion County. We are not going into a full lockdown mode. We are trying to make common senses changes to ensure we can continue to function and serve the community,” Stiles said. “After discussing these changes, Mayor Lou will be moving our council meetings to Zoom until the council room is completed. Glanzer [Pro Audio] is set to install the camera once it arrives the week of Nov. 16-20. We’ll likely need some training time, but we could potentially have a hybrid meeting starting in January. We are moving all the city advisory boards to Zoom until further notice, as well.”

Stiles reported that the city is getting a machine to be able to do rapid COVID antigen tests for city employees. He explained that city staff would be trained to administer the test and would operate under the CLIA exemption through the company. Any positive test would be sent to the hospital for a PCR test.

The intention is to test the water employees regularly, due to the staffing limitations and critical importance of the water plant. All other employees could be voluntarily tested if they had symptoms. Initially, it would be limited to testing people with symptoms, and the city would limit testing to employees only due to the cost.

Stiles went on to explain that they are closing the museum for the remainder of the year.

“We can keep Steve Fast busy with other duties and potentially develop some digital tours,” Stiles said. “I’ve also opted to cancel our Dec. 1 Christmas party. Instead, we’ll be doing a boxed lunch for our employees. As part of the normal party routine, we purchased some raffle items that we will raffle off to employees.”

In other business, the council:

•approved the minutes from the Nov. 3 meeting

•approved manual checks in the amount of $138,725.83

•scheduled a council meeting for 12-29-2020

•heard that the city’s website rebuild is progressing. Baker Brothers has a trial site that they are working on, making adjustments to the layout and design

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