Fayetteville council reinstates city’s mask mandate

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan / Fayetteville Government Channel

The Fayetteville City Council has reinstated the city’s mask mandate.

The council voted 7-0 to enact a new mandate that is similar to the previous ordinance, but without requiring business owners to enforce the new law for their customers. Under the new mandate, face masks are now required in indoor public places and in public areas at city-owned buildings, subject to some exemptions. Council Member Holly Hertzberg was absent for Friday evening’s special meeting.

The decision came just hours after the news that an Arkansas judge had temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates.

The ruling was in response to two lawsuits challenging the state’s ban, and comes after the Legislature this week failed to make changes to the prohibition to allow public schools to require masks.

The council in June lifted the city’s previous mask mandate after COVID cases declined and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s state emergency declaration ended. The local law was amended to simply recommend masks for unvaccinated people.

But with the Delta variant’s rapid spread leading to a new spike in virus cases and an overload of the area’s hospitals, the council took new action, including this week’s approval of two measures regarding masks.

The state on Friday reported over 3,000 new cases of the virus in Arkansas, and 22 more deaths. Officials said area hospitals have reached an all-time high of 165 COVID inpatients, up from just 24 on June 17, as well as an all-time high of 127 ICU patients this week.

The new Fayetteville law will only be allowed while the state is restricted from enforcing its ban.

Gov. Hutchinson signed the ban into law in April, but later said he regretted the decision, and called a special session of the Legislature to amend the ban. Two proposed measures that would’ve allowed some school districts to enact mask requirements were rejected with no legislative action taken.

The governor said he was disappointed in the actions of lawmakers.

“It is conservative, reasonable and compassionate to allow school districts to protect those students who are under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Hutchinson said in a statement on Thursday. “The cases and quarantines at the Marion School District during the last week illustrate the urgency of action.”

Hutchinson was referring to news that the Marion district has 949 students and faculty in quarantine after a coronavirus outbreak that erupted shortly after classes began.

“If we are going to have a successful school year then the local school districts need to have flexibility to protect those who are at risk,” Hutchinson said.

Special meeting discussion

Council Member Matthew Petty said the new mandate is set to be reconsidered either when the governor’s emergency declaration ends or when the city’s Board of Health determines that mask are no longer needed for vaccinated people.

Before discussion began, City Health Officer Marti Sharkey said the time has come to take new action to address the surge.

“The concern that area hospitals could become overwhelmed is a now a reality,” Sharkey said.

Sharkey said while vaccines are a longterm solution, wearing a mask is the most effective way to curb the spike in cases the area is currently seeing.

“Vaccines are our way out of this pandemic, but masks are our way out of this surge,” she said.

During public comment, eight people spoke in favor of the mandate, and two people spoke against it. Those against said vaccinated people don’t need masks and that a mandate would be unenforceable. Those in favor said not everyone is vaccinated and masks are the best way to prevent spread among unvaccinated people.

Council Member Sloan Scroggin said he’s very worried about the overloaded hospitals.

“Right now I might not even be able to take my child to the ER,” Scroggin said. “We have to do something, and honestly, this is doing very little.”

Council Member Mark Kinion said there are a lot of statistics being thrown around about vaccines, but it’s clear they are effective.

“Vaccines work,” said Kinion, “But we do not have the capacity right now to mandate vaccines.”

Kinion said mandating safety measures is nothing new and mentioned seatbelts as one requirement that governments have mandated in an effort to protect citizens.

Council Member Teresa Turk said the area is in a medical crisis and with the school year approaching, safety measures must be put into place.

“Children under 12 still are not eligible to receive the vaccine,” said Turk. “We really need to be thinking about protecting our children.”

Council Member Bunch said it’s inconvenient to wear a mask, but for her, the decision is easy.

“It’s not that I enjoy wearing a mask or oppressing people,” said Bunch. “But if we can take small measures to protect our citizens, then let’s do it.”

Council Member Jones said he doesn’t understand why people are resistant to wearing masks, especially at a time when cases are surging and people are getting sick at a much higher level.

Council Member Gutierrez said next to vaccines, masks are the best tool that people have to protect themselves right now.

Council Member Petty said he wants business owners to know they are not required to enforce the mandate.

“But you are welcome to require people to wear masks,” he said. “And we encourage you to do so.”

Mayor Lioneld Jordan thanked the council for considering the issue.

“Folks, this is a serious pandemic, and we need to take serious action,” Jordan said.

Exceptions to the mandate

The new mandate is subject to the following exceptions:

  1. Masks may be removed while consuming food or drinking a beverage if social distancing and disinfection best practices are also followed.
  2. Settings with ten (10) or fewer persons present, such as small business offices which do not serve the public in person, and areas without normal public access, such as semi-private offices and workshops, do not require masks, unless persons cannot follow social distancing best practices.
  3. Reasonable accommodations may be made for individuals with a disabling condition that prevents
    wearing a face mask.
  4. Masks may be removed in outdoor settings generally while best practices to maintain social distance are followed. Masks shall be worn at managed events when attendance and format prevent social distancing.
  5. Children of less than two years of age shall not be required to wear face masks.