Fayetteville council wants local control over mask mandates

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan / Fayetteville Government Channel

With a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and area hospitalizations, the Fayetteville City Council wants the state to return local control of safety measures designed to protect people during the pandemic.

Council members on Tuesday voted 7-1 to approve two measures regarding mask mandates.

The first measure was a resolution that encourages Gov. Asa Hutchinson to include in his call for a special session of the Legislature not only the legal ability for public schools to decide whether they should require masks, but also to return the power of cities to decide for themselves whether mask mandates are needed in their specific communities.

The Legislature is set to meet Wednesday to discuss possible changes to Act 1002 which prohibits state and local governments from enacting mask mandates.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said state lawmakers are scheduled to discuss whether public schools should be allowed to require masks, but told the council there’s been no discussion about changes to Act 1002 that would allow cities to also enact mask mandates for residents who enter city buildings and public indoor places.

“I brought this forward because I think we need to have local control in this city, and in fact, I think all cities should have local control,” said Jordan. “The top priority of any city should be the safety of their citizens.”

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said Tuesday nearly 19% of active cases of the virus in Arkansas are currently among children under age 18. Half of those children, he said, are under age 12, meaning they are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

That news came after the state on Monday reported the highest increase in hospitalizations since the pandemic began, with 81 new people being admitted with the virus. Officials at Mercy Hospital in Rogers followed that report with news that the facility had reached an all-time high of 165 COVID-19 patients, which represents an increase of almost 600% over the past six weeks.

Council Member Holly Hertzberg voted against the resolution. She said there might be an issue concerning enforcement, and she thinks it would put educators and business owners in a tough spot if a local mandate were eventually issued that couldn’t be enforced.

A second mask-related resolution was brought forward Tuesday by Council Member Matthew Petty that authorizes City Attorney Kit Williams to decide whether the city should join a recent lawsuit that challenges the state’s mask mandate ban.

The lawsuit was filed Monday by Rogers attorney Tom Mars on behalf of two Pulaski County mothers who are concerned about their children’s safety when they return to school. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the ban. It also seeks an eventual declaration that Act 1002 is unconstitutional.

Hertzberg asked if there would be any outside legal fees involved if the city were to join the case. Williams said there would not be any fees accrued, as he’d handle everything himself.

Williams said he needs to further study the possibility before he makes a decision about intervening, but if the council passes the resolution, he’d get to work on writing a brief in support of the plaintiffs.

Hertzberg also cast the only no vote on that resolution. Other than her question to Williams, she did not say why she was against the idea.

During public comment, local teacher and former Council Member Kyle Smith spoke and said the matter is not about masks, but rather who gets to make the decision about masks. He said local cities should be allowed to make the call for their own communities, and that the Legislature overstepped its authority by taking away local control.

Mayor Jordan said the pandemic is at a much more dangerous level than it was this time last year. He said every city in the state is different, and each one needs to be able to make the safest decisions for itself.

Council Member Sarah Bunch agreed.

“I believe very strongly that our city should have the right to determine what we do in our community, and not our Legislature, in this particular issue,” said Bunch.