Fayetteville council to consider removing mask mandate for vaccinated people

Dr. Marti Sharkey, the city’s public health officer, speaks during Tuesday’s City Council agenda-setting session / Fayetteville Government Channel

City Council members next week will consider a proposal to remove Fayetteville’s mask mandate for people who are fully vaccinated.

The current mask ordinance was passed in June 2020, and requires everyone to wear a mask when in public places of accommodation. It also requires businesses to provide masks to customers, and refuse service to anyone who won’t wear a mask. The city gives masks to businesses at no charge.

The law includes a sunset clause which requires the council to revisit the mandate once Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s state emergency declaration ends. Hutchinson recently said he does not plan to extend the declaration past May 30.

Anything the council decides next week could only be in effect for about two months because the state legislature recently adopted a law which prohibits city’s from having their own mask mandates. That law goes into effect July 28.

The new proposal was drafted by City Attorney Kit Williams, who said the goal is to bring the local rules more into compliance with new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city’s Board of Health.

“The CDC has said if you’re fully vaccinated, then in fact you do not pose a danger to each other so you don’t need to wear a mask,” Williams said.

Dr. Marti Sharkey, the city’s public health officer, agreed.

“What we are learning is that vaccines are highly effective in preventing not just infection, but your ability to transmit the virus and your potential for getting severely ill,” said Sharkey. “So we wanted our city guidelines to be in line with the science.”

In anticipation of the sunset, the city’s Board of Health recently outlined the following set of recommendations for the council to consider:

  1. We strongly recommend that all citizens be vaccinated as soon as is feasible.
  2. Those persons that are fully vaccinated should no longer be required to wear masks within the City of Fayetteville, with the following exceptions: on mass transit, in healthcare settings, in prisons and jails, and in homeless shelters.
  3. Fully vaccinated people are those that are at least 14 days post receiving their second dose of either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines or 14 days post receiving the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
  4. Unvaccinated and partially vaccinated persons need to wear their masks until they are fully vaccinated. This is to protect themselves and other unvaccinated and partially vaccinated persons from becoming ill with Covid-19.
  5. We understand that knowing who is and is not vaccinated is not feasible.
  6. We encourage mask wearing for those that still feel more comfortable doing so for whatever reason, especially those with underlying health conditions or on medications that might limit the efficacy of the vaccines.
  7. We support local businesses that still require masks for all patrons.
  8. We encourage our citizens to be respectful of each individual’s decision to either wear a mask or not.
  9. If the active cases in Washington County are over 120 active cases/14 day rolling average, we recommend all citizens wear a mask in public indoor venues.

Sharkey said the board’s recommendation for a threshold that everyone return to wearing masks is based on about eight new cases per day in Washington County.

“Right now, our 14-day median average is at 12.5 cases,” she said. “A week ago we were at 18 and that’s about where we had been for around six weeks prior because we hadn’t been able to come down from that average, but now we’re seeing really good data and we’re seeing our case levels drop.”

Council Member Matthew Petty said those numbers are encouraging, but he would like to make sure the updated Fayetteville mandate follows the board’s recommendation that masks still be required on mass transit, in healthcare settings, prisons, jails and homeless shelters even if people in those places are vaccinated.

Petty asked Sharkey whether she thinks there might be a resurgence of the virus this summer.

Sharkey was hesitant to speculate but said she doesn’t think the chances of a resurgence are very high.

“This virus has taught me not to use a crystal ball, but I don’t believe that’s going to happen,” said Sharkey. “We are seeing really wonderful results from the vaccine, we’re seeing our vaccination rates still going up, albeit slowly, and we are seeing our numbers go down.”

Sharkey said more importantly, hospitalization and mortality rates are dropping, which will likely be key factors in assessing the virus moving forward.

Council Member Holly Hertzberg said she would prefer the amended mandate to use the word “recommend” rather than “require” when outlining the changes.

“I’m just concerned if we’re not going to require any documentation, which I don’t think we should do, I don’t know that we need an ordinance requiring something if we’re not able to enforce it,” Hertzberg said.

Council Member Sloan Scroggin said he’s glad the new proposal is closely aligned with the CDC guidelines.

“I know some people think we need to be more stringent, but I think we need to go with the CDC’s recommendations whether they are stringent or not,” said Scroggin.

The council will discuss the issue at the next regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Marti Sharkey’s last name near the end of the piece. It has been corrected.